Tonight before seeing Stephen Karam's The Humans on Broadway, I was standing in front of a restaurant when a man approached me and said "why do people say 'I'm sorry' for bumping into you? And why do they say it when someone dies?" Then he pulled out a paper and told me to read it. It said no matter how rich you are or what you gain in life, we are all the same once we die. (I figured at this point he was going to ask me for money, but he walked away.) Midway through The Humans, the dad makes a toast and says everything that we have - goes...suddenly I saw that man from earlier on the street.
Perhaps I had my own Stephen Karam experience on the street, except that mine wasn't a 70 year old Chinese woman that lived in the apartment above the one in which this play is set. I'll return to this strange "did that really happen" moment later.
The play garnered raves off-broadway last fall, quickly moved into the Helen Hayes this winter, and has added the Blake family to the long list of dysfunctional stage families that have come before. I went into this play completely in the dark about it (as dark as the stage continues to grow through the evening). I was told it was another family dinner drama - only this one comes with many laughs. I actually thought for the first 45 minutes I was watching a comedy. Jayne Houdyshell is a master at delivery. As the matriarch, she dishes it out to her family in such a real and natural way, you can't help but laugh at her. Reed Birney as her husband is also one of the most realistic actors in New York today. Every choice he makes comes from a place of truth and you believe you are witnessing a man from Scranton, PA who is in NYC having Thanksgiving at his youngest daughter's duplex apartment in Chinatown.
The play covers it all. College loans, lesbian breakups, colitis, dementia, turkey, monsters, dreams, dead-end jobs...the list could go on and on. Yet this group of six actors pulls you in so much that you feel you are LITERALLY (great joke with this word in the play) peering through the ripped open wall of David Zinn's set. Sarah Steele as the youngest daughter (who reminds me of Renee Zellweger) lives with an older boyfriend (Arian Moayed) doing the best he can to welcome his quasi-inlaws to his home. Along with the older sister played wonderfully by Cassie Beck we ride a roller coaster through this play as more and more secrets are revealed. We can't forget Lauren Klein who spends much of the play sleeping on the sofa, or slumped in a wheelchair, or having a dementia enraged tantrum...and she plays it all brilliantly.
I feel Joe Mantello directs everything on Broadway now - and that's because he understands the dynamics of people and how to make it as realistic as possible. That's the biggest take away from this evening is that it all feels completely organic in real time.
I've used the word realistic often, but actually, there is a huge unrealistic element looming over this play. Call it ghost, paranormal, dreams invading reality, or the fact the playwright wanted to write a thriller...there is another element that for this audience member turned it into a different play. I keep reading the word terror when writers describe this show, but I never felt terrorized. I felt somewhat cheated by the last ten minutes of the play after an incredible evening supplied by an amazing cast and director. I understand the symbolism Karam was going for, but it felt too cliche and 'on the nose' for my taste. Life can't be wrapped up in a pretty bow and as the stranger told me on the street, we are all the same once we die. But I still live in reality and call me nuts, I sort of like my theatrical experiences to stay in that lane if that's the lane they start in.