Review: ‘The Humans’ at Roundabout Theatre at the Helen Hayes Theatre in New York City

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“Suddenly there is God so quickly” is one of those gems in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, and it flashed into my mind as I watched Stephen Karam’s play, his first on Broadway. The Roundabout Theatre, in association with a bundle of powerhouse producers, has collected a formidable consortium to move this one-set, six character master work from Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre to the small Helen Hayes Theatre on West 44th Street. Joe Mantello remains director of this perfect ensemble of actors whose performances will remain vivid to me.

Reed Birney (Erik), Jayne Houdyshell (Deirdre), Cassie Beck (Aimee), Sarah Steele (Brigid), and Arian Moayed (Richard). Photo by Joan Marcus.
Reed Birney (Erik), Jayne Houdyshell (Deirdre), Cassie Beck (Aimee), Sarah Steele (Brigid), and Arian Moayed (Richard). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell are the long-married couple Erik and Deirdre Blake, who arrive in Chinatown after a long ride from their home in Scranton, for a Thanksgiving dinner with their young daughter Brigid and her live-in partner Richard. They have brought with them Erik’s mother Fiona, an Alzheimer victim who is unable to communicate, but they’ve managed the drive, complete with the wheelchair Fiona (called “Momo”) must use.

The play begins on a bright note as the parents arrive with gifts and a great desire to inspect and admire this new home about which they’ve heard so much. Disappointment arrives soon after their entrance into what is in reality a basement flat with a spiral staircase leading up to an assortment of areas on the floor above. It is dark space with an upstairs small window that looks out on a cigarette strewn alley. The bathroom is upstairs, and for those who are unable to comfortably handle the stairs, an elevator in the hallway helps out.

This family is middle class, and the daughters have been raised in reasonable comfort by their hard working parents. Dad had been a teacher in a Catholic school for many years until he was dismissed and Mom has been working for forty years  and is now in the uncomfortable position of being supervised by two men half her age. Aimee is spending her first holiday without her female lover, who has ended their relationship.

With uncommon skill, Stephen Karam has fashioned from the common clay of his source material a minor miracle of a theatrical work, capturing the burnished humor as well as the deep disappointment of these “ordinary” people in this typically complex unit called a family. There are successes, failures, major compromises in each of them, but there is love and connection among them as well; both have sustained them and one could say “Look, we’ve come through!” about them, until now. What makes this play so relevant is that it reflects the angst and concern of what could be considered a typical microcosmic family in the ever more frightening outside world of today. Economically, spiritually, romantically, the 21st Century has diminished our capacity for almost everything that nourishes life and causes it to flourish.

Only Richard, as beautifully played by Arian Moayed, seems to have accepted the diminished returns of  modern life. He’s a  student, getting a masters degree in social studies, and his ability to cope has brought his live-in mate Brigid great comfort and joy, for clearly she never felt either when living with her parents. Her grandmother, now reduced to a shell, was the person with whom she felt most bonded, and that poor lady has been cursed by her latter days, which are hell for her. Sarah Steele’s “Aimee” is also out of sync with her times, who is losing everything that matters to her — a lover, a job, a life.

But the greatest empathy we feel is for the parents, Erik and Deirdre.  Theirs has been a good marriage, a support system that has avoided crisis, until now. They’ve done nothing wrong — circumstance just kept chipping away at what they felt was their foundation, their fortress against the encroaching outside world. What makes the play so powerful is that it never feels sorry for itself; there is abundant humor mined and it’s clear these are all decent people who are dazed by the ways in which man’s inhumanity to man is creeping ever closer to their front door. In a section of the play in which dreams are discussed, it’s Richard who recalls that he used to read comic books in which the monsters told stories about the humans, who were to them, monsters. That’s what frightened him so; that’s what he will fight for the rest of his life.

Jayne Houdyshell continues to deliver another beautifully wrought characterization who several times remarks “My mouth is shut,” or what amounts to “I’m just saying…” when she is faced with behavior she finds unacceptable. It’s a joy to watch the moveable feast of her face register every emotion evoked by her close ties with these people. Reed Birney is another actor who always delivers the truth and his character’s fall from grace is very moving.

Sarah Steele (Brigid), Arian Moayed (Richard), and Jayne Houdyshell (Deirdre). Photo by Joan Marcus.
Sarah Steele (Brigid), Arian Moayed (Richard), and Jayne Houdyshell (Deirdre). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Joe Mantello’s creative collaborators have helped us to live for 90 minutes of real time in David Zinn’s eerily ugly duplex basement apartment in Chinatown, Fritz Patton’s sound design has brought all the alarming noises that often intrude, Sarah Laux and Justin Townsend have costumed and lit the play with contributions to match. It boggles my mind to note that it took over twenty producers, some of them well-seasoned and successful, to rescue this brilliant play from obscurity. We are all the beneficiaries of their action, and we owe them a lot. But if the play wins the Tony Award for Best Play, as it well might, the stage will collapse if they all troop up to claim it.

Running Time: 90 minutes, without an intermission.

The Humans is playing at Roundabout Theatre performing at The Helen Hayes Theatre – 240 West 44th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue), in New York City. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, or 800-447-7400., go to the box office, or purchase them online.

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Richard Seff
RICHARD SEFF has been working in theatre since he made his acting debut in support of Claude Rains in the prize winning DARKNESS AT NOON, and he agreed to tour the next season in support of Edward G. Robinson, which took him across the nation and back for nine months. When it was over and he was immediately offered another national tour with THE SHRIKE with Van Heflin, he decided to explore other areas, and he spent the next 22 years representing artists in the theatre as an agent, where he worked at Liebling-Wood, MCA, eventually a partnership of his own called Hesseltine-Bookman and Seff, where he discovered and developed young talents like Chita Rivera, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Ron Field, Linda Lavin, Nancy Dussault and many others. He ultimately sold his interest to ICM. When he completed his contractual obligation to that international agency, he returned to his first love, acting and writing for the theatre. In that phase of his long and varied life, he wrote a comedy (PARIS IS OUT!) which brightened the 1970 season on Broadway for 107 performances. He became a successful supporting player in film, tv and onstage, and ultimately wrote a book about his journey, SUPPORTING PLAYER: MY LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGE, still popular with older theatre lovers and youngsters who may not yet know exactly where they will most sensibly and profitably fit into the world of show business. The book chronicles a life of joyous work working in a favored profession in many areas, including leading roles in the regional theatres in his work in Lanford Wilson's ANGELS FALL. His last stage role was in THE COUNTESS in which he played Mr. Ruskin for 9 months off Broadway. Five seasons ago Joel Markowitz suggested he join him at DCTheatreScene. His accurate and readable reviews of the New York Scene led, when the time was right, for his joining DCMetroTheaterArts to continue bringing news of the Big Apple's productions just to keep you posted. He is delighted to be able to join DCMTA and work with Joel and hopes that you like what he has to say.