Review: “The Humans”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
When: through Feb. 11
Tickets: $25-$98
Phone: 800-775-2000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

I was very sorry to have missed the highly praised 2014 premiere of Stephen Karam’s “The Humans” at American Theater Company, so the arrival of the touring version for a brief run at the Cadillac Palace Theatre offered a welcome second chance. This is especially true since the play, originally commissioned by New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company, racked up a slew of awards for its Off-Broadway and Broadway runs (including four Tony Awards), was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist, and was widely hailed as the best play of the year.

The show comes here with its Broadway creative team intact, starting with director Joe Mantello, who leads us through the 90 intermission-less minutes with aplomb. Scenic designer David Zinn deserved his Tony Award for the bi-level Chinatown apartment set with a spiral staircase connecting the light-deprived first floor and the windowless basement with its basic kitchen and dining area. Justin Townsend’s Drama Desk Award-winning lighting takes on a life of its own, thanks partly to panic-inducing outages. Fitz Patton’s sound design adds to the fray, particularly with the periodic unearthly pounding caused, we’re told, by the old Chinese woman who lives upstairs. And Sarah Laux’s costumes suit these characters perfectly.

Karam looks at a middle-class, middle-American family through the familiar lens of a Thanksgiving gathering, but his talent is a very keen power of observation and the humor and compassion with which he depicts the trials and tribulations that outweigh small triumphs for which everyone is nonetheless grateful. He also is attuned to the dynamics of family interaction, from arguments about trivia that escalate until they become hurtful to secrets burning to be told.

Often relying on rapid-fire overlapping conversations that make it difficult to catch every word, the style creates the illusion that we’re eavesdropping on a real-time event. And it would be hard to imagine a more convincing, compelling ensemble than the one assembled by Mantello.

For this occasion, three generations of the Blake family are getting together, atypically, at the apartment that younger daughter, Brigid (Daisy Eagan), has moved into with her older boyfriend, Richard Saad (Luis Vega), though the furniture hasn’t even arrived and the meal is on paper plates. Her sixtyish parents, Erik (Richard Thomas) and Dierdre (Pamela Reed), have driven in from Scranton, PA, bringing with them Erik’s mother, Fiona, aka “Momo” (Lauren Klein, from the Broadway cast), who is in a wheelchair and has dementia. Brigid’s older sister, Aimee (Therese Plaehn), has come from Philadelphia, where she’s a lawyer but has recently been fired for taking off too much time because of her ulcerative colitis. She’s also grieving over the breakup with her long-time girlfriend but tries to put a light-hearted, self-deprecating spin on everything.

While quite a lot of talk involves illness—Erik has a bad back, Dierdre has bad knees, Momo is having a “bad day”–money, or the lack thereof, is another major topic. Brigid, a musician/composer who can’t find a job in her field and is working two bartending jobs to help pay off her student loans, takes a couple of digs at her parents for not helping out. Dierdre, an office manager, complains that she serves much younger bosses who make five times her pay. Aimee has some savings but worries now that she’s jobless. Erik, who seems to be penny-pinching, laments that just living costs so much, though a revelation late in the play—that would come earlier in most others—explains the source of his anxiety and why he seems so distracted. Richard, who prepares most of the meal and tries to act as peacemaker, has a history of depression (his mother is a therapist) and an inheritance he won’t get until he is 40.

Thomas, arguably the best-known actor in the cast, sets the tone as Erik, who comes across as a little lost from the moment he enters the apartment slightly ahead of the others. Haunted by bad dreams and a traumatic experience on 9/11, he’s disapproving of Brigid’s choices of boyfriend and apartment, reminding her that Chinatown, despite gentrification, is not only dangerous but also on a flood plain. Reed’s animated Dierdre is annoying in a mom way many daughters will recognize; a devout Catholic, she’s even brought Brigid a statue of the Virgin and begs her to at least keep it in a drawer. Klein’s Momo sleeps much of the time, making her mutterings all the more poignant and her outburst heart-rending. The most moving moment is the reading of an email she wrote to the family four years earlier, before her disease took over.

Eagan and Phaehn are nicely cast as sisters who are very different and have mostly overcome sibling rivalry to find some common ground. Vega navigates the position of the outsider carefully, his awareness of the awkwardness of the situation apparent in something as simple as the way he says “cool.”

“The Humans” is well worth seeing because the issues are so real and the characters are so recognizably…well, human. But, I must admit, I’m a little surprised by the extent of the accolades. The play itself is small in scope, and though insightful, is far from earth-shattering.