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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE HUMANS
at Helen Hayes Theatre

EMOTIONALLY DAMAGED
By MATT WINDMAN

  Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Arian Moayed, Sarah Steele and Cassie Beck/ Ph: Brigitte Lacombe

Stephen Karam’s contemporary family drama The Humans, which just transferred to Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre immediately following a short run at the Roundabout’s Off-Broadway space, is unapologetically depressing and lacking in narrative. The pretentious and generic title is also a turnoff. But in spite of all this, it makes for a compelling and often outright terrifying character portrait.

Over the course of 100 minutes, a middle-class Scranton family comes together for a makeshift Thanksgiving dinner at the empty duplex apartment that the youngest daughter (Sarah Steele) has just moved to in Lower Manhattan with her older boyfriend (Arian Moayed), who has a financially secure future ahead thanks to a family trust fund.

Things are not going so well for everyone else. The grandmother (Lauren Klein) is suffering from Alzheimer’s. The father (Reed Birney) just lost his job and pension and has recurring back pain and insomnia. The mother (Jayne Houdyshell) is overeating as a result of withheld emotions. And the older daughter (Cassie Beck) just lost her longtime girlfriend and is suffering from a severe internal disorder that is disrupting her white-shoe legal career.

In other words, there isn’t much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, and none of the problems is resolved or ameliorated by the play’s end. The final moment, as Birney’s character is left alone in the darkened apartment, anguished physically and emotionally, is a genuinely cathartic moment of theater, leaving you to wonder, “Why must this reasonably decent guy suffer so much? Am I doomed to the same fate? Can I avoid it?”

The Humans lacks the twists and turns and wicked humor of Karam’s other plays such as Speech and Debate and Sons of the Prophet (which were also produced by the Roundabout). No climax or resolution occurs. Instead, it just drags along with an overwhelmingly downbeat aura. But seen as a series of portraits of emotionally and physically damaged individuals (or rather “humans”) it is extremely timely and poignant.

Under the masterful, extremely precise direction of Joe Mantello (Wicked, Assassins, numerous new plays), the actors deliver truthful, vulnerable performances while also handling simultaneous action on the two-story set, overlapping dialogue and many silent pauses.

Birney has given many great performances in recent years (Circle Mirror Transformation, Uncle Vanya, Casa Valentina), but none as revealing and relatable as this. Barring an unexpected turn of events, this will probably be the show for which he finally wins a Tony Award. The same may be true of Houdyshell, whose razor-sharp delivery of her character’s witty responses earns laughs.

 


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