Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Humans ***

Stephen Karam’s new play joins a long list of theater works and films about Thanksgiving family dinners from Hell. The very Irish Blake family are gathered in the Chinatown apartment into which younger daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard (Arian Moayed) have just moved. The blue-collar parents Erik (Reed Birney) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) have driven in from Scranton with Erik’s demented mother Fiona (Lauren Klein) for the occasion. Older sister Aimee (Cassie Beck), an attorney in Philadelphia, is also there. In the wake of 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy, Erik is upset that Brigid’s ground-level-and-below duplex apartment is both in a flood zone and near Ground Zero. During the course of dinner, we learn some of the other fears that afflict the family members. Economic insecurity continues to play an important role in all their lives. Thwarted careers, health issues, fragile relationships, recurring nightmares and other problems beset them as well. The characters seem very real and the authentic dialogue illustrates their skill at pushing each other’s buttons. The playwright has chosen to make the apartment, with its sudden loud noises and its abruptly failing lighting, a metaphor — a rather clumsy one, in my opinion —for the entropy in the characters’ lives. Karam treats his characters with compassion. The acting is very strong and the situations are mostly easy to empathize with. However, the play loses steam toward the end and the final moments were a disappointment. Nevertheless, its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. The bilevel under-furnished apartment set by David Zinn provides an apt background for the action. I didn’t even notice Sarah Laux’s costumes, which is a good thing. Joe Mantello’s direction is confident without being showy. While I don’t feel that the play is on a par with Karam’s excellent “Sons of the Prophet,” it still has much to recommend it. Running time: one hour 40 minutes; no intermission.

NOTE: Try to avoid seats in the first few rows because you will be too close to see a substantial part of the set’s upper level.

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