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Aisle View: Family Monsters

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 26/10/2015 Steven Suskin

2015-10-25-1445809492-6227270-0206_BirneyHoudyshellBeckSteeleMoayedinTHEHUMANS.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2015-10-25-1445809492-6227270-0206_BirneyHoudyshellBeckSteeleMoayedinTHEHUMANS.jpg Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Cassie Beck, Sarah Steele and
Arian Moayed in
The Humans. Photo: Joan Marcus
Stephen Karam, whose Sons of the Prophet in 2011 remains one of the finest American plays of the decade, has returned to the Roundabout's Laura Pels with The Humans. As in his first play at the Pels--and his earlier play, Speech & Debate, at the Underground Black Box beneath the Pels--he reveals himself to be an intelligent and original writer with a special talent for incisive comic dialogue which packs an emotional punch.
That said, some fans of Karam might well sit through The Humans with a growing sense of disappointment. The writing talent is there, and very much on display; but as the evening goes on we feel like the author has run into a dead end, yet keeps going.
Depressed musician/bartender Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele, the bright young comic actress from Speech & Debate and "The Good Wife") has just moved into a Chinatown duplex with her boyfriend Richard (Arian Moayed, a Tony nominee from Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo). We have become used to going to Roundabout or Manhattan Theatre Club productions and thinking, Gee would I like to live in that apartment. Not so this time, given David Zinn's expertly disheartening set.
Brigid's Irish family arrives from Scranton, PA for a festive Thanksgiving dinner: Erik (Reed Birney), a depressed maintenance man; Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), his depressed wife who is on a perennial battle with Weight Watchers; Aimee (Cassie Beck), Brigid's depressed sister, who has just lost her job, her girlfriend, and is about to lose her intestine to surgery for ulcerative colitis; and Momo (Lauren Klein), the grandmother in a wheelchair suffering from one of those severe dementia diseases.
Karam takes this potentially promising group and puts them around the holiday table for a feast on paper plates. (The moving van got stuck in traffic in Queens, the day before, and won't arrive until after the holiday.) The meal is marred by mysterious sounds from the apartment above; mysterious sounds from the laundry room (the lower floor of the two-level set is in the basement); mysterious sounds from the elevator shaft; and electrical fuses that one-by-one, over the course of the evening, blow out until the set is in darkness. Just like the lives of each of the characters. Karam never does explain these events--maybe it's just karma?--and after a while the eerie external occurrences turn unconvincing. The title comes from a comic book series about half-alien creatures on another planet, in whose horror stories the monsters are humans. Enough said.
2015-10-25-1445809538-1381732-0229_BirneySteeleinTHEHUMANS.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2015-10-25-1445809538-1381732-0229_BirneySteeleinTHEHUMANS.jpg Reed Birney and Sarah Steele in The Humans. Photo: Joan Marcus
Birney--seen of late in Casa Valentina and the Annie Baker Uncle Vanya--gives yet another masterful performance. His character is a bluff, blue-collar father trying to hide the fact that he is being crushed under the weight of a handful of crises. Other good actors might play this by telegraphing that there are Big Things hidden away. Birney doesn't telegraph; his Erik--from the beginning--seems to be stuck in molasses, going through the fatherly motions with despairing, deadened eyes. Houdyshell (Well, Follies) gives another one of her entertaining-but-serious performances, breathing life into what might be a slightly underwritten role. Steele, the twenty-seven-year old character comedienne who made her Broadway debut last season as Blythe Danner's granddaughter in Donald Marguilies' The Country House, continues to impress; at this point, she seems to be developing into this generation's Christine Baranski.
Karam is clearly a talented writer with a future; anyone with his command of language and character is most welcome. Playwrights of this caliber need the opportunity to write presumably personal plays like The Humans, and Karam is fortunate to have an organization like the Roundabout dedicated to producing his work. He is also fortunate to have an A-list director like Joe Mantello, who does a creative job on this split-level play. The Humans, though, is overrun by depressing characters with depressing problems, who are beset with a few too many mysterious unknowns. Some theatergoers will likely leave the play exhilarated, while others--while appreciative of Karam's gifts--will simply be mighty depressed.
.The Humans, by Stephen Karam, opened October 25, 2015 and continues through December 27 at the Laura Pels Theatre

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