Of all the plays this season, Stephen Karam’s The Humans elicited the broadest range of responses from my friends and colleagues. For each one who put it at the top of their list there was someone who unequivocally hated it. Now that I’m on the other side of my own viewing experience, I can see why this piece generates both broad smiles and crossed arms. It’s a cake made with corrosive acid and vanilla buttercream frosting. Which of these ingredients hits you harder will depend very much on your personal makeup. The one thing you won’t feel is nothing at all.
Fittingly, the events take place on Thanksgiving, which — lets face it — even in the happiest of households is a holiday that never quite lives up to our vision. This is certainly true for the sincerely loving Blakes, joined for the first time by the younger sister Brigid’s beau, Richard Saad. The family is as close to typical middle class city dwellers as you are likely to find on a big stage. Rich has inherited money in his near future and is therefore on a different plane. Long held rituals, new practices, and lost traditions come together over the course of evening, making for an odd mixture of comfort, hope and longing.
It must have been challenging to preserve the necessary level of intimacy when the play moved from the Laura Pels Theatre to Broadway. Multiple Tony winning director Joe Mantello accomplishes this by keeping the action chaotic and tight. David Zinn’s set successfully recreates what passes for spacious in New York’s Chinatown: a windowless basement with a nearly windowless second story. Justin Townsend’s lighting and Fitz Patton’s sound add layers of eeriness and occasional humor to the atmosphere.
But as the title suggests, it is the humans who stand out. The chemistry among the actors (Cassie Beck, Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Arian Moayed and Sarah Steele) is top flight. Their warm, genuine bond is essential to making this production a success. No wonder of all the terrific recent collaborative works, the Drama Desk chose to honor this cast with a special award for Outstanding Ensemble. Birney and Houdyshell are particular standouts whose every emotion can be read in their body language from the back row.
The Humans is playing at the barely comfortable Helen Hayes Theater. If you like your theater on the raw side, this one is for you. Tickets are currently available through July 24, 2016. Visit http://www.thehumansonbroadway.com for more information.