The Humans (Stage)
The Humans, Stephen Karam’s family dramedy that took home the 2016 Tony for Best Play and was edged out of a Pulitzer by Hamilton, has made its way to Los Angeles with most of its Broadway company intact (as well as director Joe Mantello).
The production feels like it’s been taken lock, stock, and barrel from its home in New York and plopped into the Ahmanson by the Center Theatre Group, and that prospect is always a dangerous one. Plays put into the cavernous space there run the risk of their subtlety being entirely swallowed by a house that could hold multiple Broadway theaters within its gaping confines. It’s a marvel then that The Humans, which is spare, nuanced, and thoughtful in its tale of an American family hanging on by the skin of their teeth, manages to lose none of its effective simplicity while still reaching to the rafters.
Karam’s play is a study of the things that go bump in the night — our fear of poverty, infidelity, illness, and the slow death of the middle class. It centers on the Blake family, who come together for a Thanksgiving in Lower Manhattan and navigate these fears while turning to each other for comfort, reassurance, and answers none of them are equipped to give.
The six actors, who share the stage for nearly the entirety of the play’s brisk 90 minutes, are all operating at the top of their game, delivering performances so subtle and lived in that they’re almost equivalent to sleight of hand — blink and you’ll miss the layered work they’ve done to make us feel as if we’re intruding on a family dinner from our space in the dark. All this is enhanced by Karam’s writing, which frequently punctuates moments with humor, whether it be the hilarity of familiar domestic arguments or the sharper-edged comedy of characters trying to make light as a defense mechanism.
Cassie Beck is heartbreakingly honest as Aimee Blake, a woman who has recently lost everything — her job, her girlfriend whom she can’t seem to let go, and her health — and is facing a life-changing surgery for her ulcerative colitis. It may seem odd to say, but together Beck and Karam paint such a true portrait of chronic illness that it can feel breathtakingly painful to watch — the moments of vulnerability interspersed between attempts to pretend everything is going to be okay. I say this as a person living with a chronic illness myself; it’s rare to see the subject handled with such care and understanding in popular culture, and Beck’s sensitive portrayal is something we’ve desperately needed. This image of this slightly lost woman trying to remain the most responsible member of her family pulls at the heartstrings in unspeakable ways.
Naturally, the play’s biggest attractions are its two Tony winners, Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell, as the Blake patriarch and matriarch struggling to keep their heads above water. Birney and Houdyshell are devastatingly real and relatable in their portrayal of these Pennsylvania strivers, who have wished for nothing more than to hold down the same job for 20 years to earn their pensions and raise their daughters. Houdyshell, in particular, feels so vividly alive — so many of us have known that woman, have been that woman — and it’s always a theatrical gift to witness a performance so utterly devoid of even the slightest hint of artifice. Both performers nearly bristle with the desperation of their situation, struggling to tamp it down under the warmth and familiarity of family traditions. From the play’s very first moments, when Birney stands alone in a dilapidated duplex, we can sense something is wrong — we just don’t know what.
It’s a relief that when we finally do get at that “what,” as it unfolds over the course of an awkward and frequently hilarious Thanksgiving meal, that it’s altogether human and relatable. The Humans sells itself as a family drama on the scale of August: Osage County and Other Desert Cities, and it certainly feels similar in structure and scope. But it’s a refreshing shift for the family’s secrets to be those held by so many of us, rather than something as dramatically explosive as incest or faked deaths. It is this that makes the play almost unbearable in the best possible way at certain moments, its exposed wounds hitting all too close to home.
The play doesn’t quite stick the landing, however. Once we get to the climax, instead of sitting in its consequences and experiencing its impact on each member of the family, Karam speeds through those moments to leave Birney alone onstage once more with his fears. It’s powerful imagery, this man alone in the dark, haunted by his choices, but it would pack a bigger punch if we could see how these fears infect and shape his family to a greater degree as well. Karam also chooses to close on a supernatural metaphor, which though effective in sending a chill through the audience, feels a bit forced and untethered. As a result, you leave the theater a bit like a member of the Blake family — confused, but haunted by what you’ve just witnessed. B+