Even before Thanksgiving dinner is served, the Blake family manages to bring all of their baggage to the table.
In playwright Stephen Karam’s spectacular new play, The Humans, the middle-class family gathers for their holiday meal that bodes nothing but surprises. Set in a Chinatown duplex apartment, what starts as an evening of carving turkey and catching up on gossip quickly morphs into something much more morose. As the evening progresses, secrets are revealed, relationships are unraveled, and familial bonds are tested in ways that the Blakes have never known before.
For patriarch Erik (Reed Birney), this means spending the course of the night working up the courage to tell his two daughters about a mistake he made, which is starting to have a ripple effect on both his personal and professional life. For mother Aimee (Cassie Beck), this means coming to terms with the fact that despite her 40+ years at the same job, she’ll never get the title or paycheck that her much younger colleagues earn. For Momo (Lauren Klein), Erik’s mother, every day is a new challenge due to her dementia. And on this particular day, she can barely form a coherent sentence.
But it’s not just the parents who are struggling. Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), the eldest daughter, is celebrating the holidays as a single woman for the first time, the result of a breakup she’s still reeling from. On top of that are her health issues, which she believes are the real reason she was recently let go from her job. Brigid (Sarah Steele, who recently stole the show in The Country House), the youngest of the clan, is having difficulty juggling her job as a bartender with her dreams of pursuing her passion as a musician. Meanwhile, her live-in boyfriend, Richard (Arian Moayed), must keep wearing a forced smile as he’s playing host to his girlfriends’ parents. He knows all too well that they have preconceived notions about his history with depression and don’t approve of the fact that he’s ten years older than their daughter.
But The Humans is no dreary drama—not by a long shot. In fact, it’s stacked with enough warmth and humor that you may find yourself surprised that a show that made you laugh so much ends on such a dark note.
Like any family, the Blakes have their ups and downs. But part of what makes them so endearingly human (pun!) is their ability to see past everyone’s flaws and mistakes and not let those things define how they relate to one another. Sure, there are some truth bombs dropped that will require a lot of work to sort through; but the fact that the Blakes want to stick together as a family and work through them at all is what makes them so real.
Karam’s writing is sharp, contemporary, and refreshing. Coupled with the actors’ dedicated performances, the dialogue written for the Blakes produces an unmistakable family chemistry. Even before any introductions are made or relationships are explained, it’s immediately clear who’s who, how they fit in with everyone else, and what the dynamic is. Despite the setting in a large Broadway theater, the audience members feel like they are in an intimate space, which allows them to observe these people in their private habitats. They feel fully transported into the lives of the Blakes. All of which is a testament to Karam’s command of language – and to the power of live theater as a whole.
David Zinn’s meticulous scenic design also works wonders. The apartment is split into two halves. There’s the top half, which is where one enters from the street. Then there’s the basement apartment, interconnected with the ground level via a staircase. Most of the time the entire cast is on stage, but this separation allows characters to have moments of privacy and, thus, stronger development. When Aimee goes upstairs, for example, hearing what her children really think of the chain e-mails she forwards them is the type of exchange that not only fortifies the sisters’ bond, but that also shows how much they love their mother. Although they’re teasing their mom, it’s only because they know that all of her antics –however quirky or disagreeable they may be – come from places of compassion and good intent.
As the show goes on, more and more problems occur with the lights. Occasional flickering switches to moments of total power-outage; as the sparks of revealed truths settle, the unreliable lights mirror the changing ways in which everyone sees each other. By the end of the show, enough chaos and confusion has occurred that it’s no surprise that it concludes in total darkness. It’s a brilliant and evocative choice that adds power to the punch that the play throws at the end.
Before it transferred to the Great White Way, The Humans enjoyed a successful Off-Broadway run with the Roundabout Theatre Company. The show racked up six Lucille Lortel Award Nominations (the Off-Broadway answer to the Tonys), leading the pack with the most nominations of any show this season. Given the rich, layered, and complex characters they play, it’s no wonder that literally half of the cast – Birney, Houdyshell, and Klein – are all up for acting awards. And no matter how many awards the show wins at the May 1st ceremony, the profusely talented troupe is practically guaranteed to still have reasons to celebrate when the Tony nominations are revealed two days later.
Bottom Line: Full of humor, heart, and hijinks, The Humans is a fascinating, poignant, and original play that is destined to become a contemporary classic.
The finest new play of the Broadway season. The Humans is a major discovery, a play as empathetic as it is clear-minded, as entertaining as it is honest. A bright light shines forth from it, the blazing luminescence of collective artistic achievement. CHARLES ISHERWOOD THE NEW YORK TIMES
It is the most, well, human play I’ve ever seen about fear and disappointment and the attachments that transcend them. JESSE GREEN THE NEW YORK MAGAZINE
It’s hard to think of another play that has dealt with the realities of life with such compassion. Truly remarkable and exceptionally moving. Few writers of Karam’s generation have achieved anything quite like The Humans. CHRIS JONES CHICAGO TRIBUNE
What Broadway needs more of: extraordinary Humans. The Humans is the sort of impeccably constructed play that should be a regular inhabitant on Broadway, not the occasional, surprising guest. PETER MARKS THE WASHINGTON POST
The best play of the year. The Humans resonates long after the actors have taken their bows. DAVID ROONEY THE HOLLYWOOD
Tickets for The Humans ($39 – $135) are available by visiting the Helen Hayes Theatre box office Monday – Saturday, 10am – 8pm and Sunday Noon – 6pm; online at Telecharge.com, or by calling 212 239 6200.
The Humans plays the following performance schedule: Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2pm and 8pm, Thursdays at 7pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm.
Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he primarily focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. After growing up in Poland, Germany, and Russia, Alex spent several years living in New York before moving full-time to the Berkshires in Massachusetts. To read more from Alex, check out his blog, Headphone Infatuation, and follow him on Twitter @AlexNagorski.