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Theater Review: “The Humans”

“The Humans” plays through July 29, 2018, at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles.
Photo credit:
Lawrence K. Ho

According to author Napoleon Hill, there are six basic fears, and every human suffers one or more of these at some point in life: poverty, criticism, ill health, loss of love of someone, old age, death.

In “The Humans,” playwright Stephen Karam gives us a family drama with six people who collectively fear all of these things. That makes it a heavy lift for what Karam bills as a comedy.

It’s Thanksgiving, and the Blake family has gathered to celebrate at younger daughter Brigid’s newly rented basement duplex in New York City’s Chinatown. It’s an odd place, made by connecting the dark basement section with two small, dingy rooms above it. “Dark” is the word that best describes the place and the spiral staircase which connects the floors.

Brigid is moving in with boyfriend Richard Saad (Nick Mills), and they haven’t really decided yet where the furniture will go when it’s delivered. But a table, chairs, a couch and an armchair are available now, and the kitchen works.

Brigid wants to be a composer, but student debt forces her to tend bar. Rich is studying to be a social worker. He comes from a bit more money and will come into a trust fund in two years when he turns 40. Envious mutterings are heard from Erik, who advises him to “save your money now” because “at the end of the day....everything you have goes.” 

The rest of Brigid’s family comes in from Pennsylvania. Brigid’s parents Erik (Reed Birney) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) are 60ish and work at the kind of jobs that used to offer a solid middle-class living. Erik has spent almost 30 years at a private school, mostly doing maintenance; Deirdre has been a corporate office manager almost as long.

They care for Erik’s wheelchair-bound mother “Momo” (Lauren Klein), who suffers from dementia and cannot often speak more than gibberish.

Brigid’s older sister Aimee (Cassie Beck) is a lesbian lawyer who just got a double whammy: she lost her girlfriend and found out that she will never make partner. She also suffers from ulcerative colitis and will require surgery.

Strange and unsettling THUDs occur at frequent intervals (mostly attributed to the Chinese lady upstairs, who apparently does some interesting exercises). Lights go out for no apparent reason. Erik thinks he sees an apparition outside. Both Erik and Richard report weird and unsettling dreams.

Is the place haunted or just old? Are we to take this as a metaphor for the decline of ... something? The family, the country, everybody’s finances and/or health? I’m not sure. It plays rather like a sitcom, with a laugh line every 45 seconds or so. Karam is a good writer; many of the lines are indeed funny, but I wearied of the regularity of their occurrence. Family occasions (at least mine) are just not that funny, especially when the topics of conversation are money and health. Still, “The Humans” won four Tonys, including Best Play of 2016.

The characters are rather Chekhovian and the show plays like the old-fashioned slice-of-life pieces we saw back in the day (and still see from Annie Baker).

This is the Broadway cast, and they are terrific. Birney and Houdyshell play well off each other; Erik’s fear counteracted by Deirdre’s expansive nature and clever tongue.

Beck’s Aimee has the heaviest dramatic load to carry (saddling the poor thing with three major problems seems a bit de trop), but her scenes with younger sister Brigid (wonderfully played by Steele) seem absolutely natural.

Saad’s Richard adds the class struggle element, and Klein’s  “Momo” is the living embodiment of the way many of us will end up.

Bravo to set designer David Zinn and to sound and lighting designers Fitz Patton and Justin Townsend for getting the look just right and the sounds and lighting strange and perhaps foreboding.

The details

“The Humans” plays through July 29, 2018, at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles.

Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 1 and 6:30 pm

Tickets: (213) 628-2772  or www.centertheatregroup.org.