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The Humans review
By Stephen Karam
Directed by Joe Mantello
Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage, London
Runs to October 13
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
This is a great chance to catch the Broadway production (with original cast) of a recent multiple Tony-winning new play which has the makings of a modern classic.
The unremarkable Blake family gather for a Thanksgiving Dinner in a shabby basement duplex in Chinatown, New York. The piece has all the tropes of the conventional family gathering drama but Karam's play is so much more. It is wise and blisteringly funny at times and it explores the psychological contours of a very contemporary American family.
For the Blakes are what could be termed the fearful 'middle class' (in the American sense) behind whom lurk constant fears of poverty, unemployment and ill health. This will speak to many of us but the play strikes a more profound chord in our collective psyche for it's about the emotional toll of living through these uncertain times. "My plays have become more political by focusing on human behaviours" said Karam recently and this follows the rich tradition of forebears like Arthur Miller, and in many respects surpasses them.
The festive occasion is being hosted by the younger sibling Brigid (Sarah Steele – Marissa Gold in The Good Wife) a struggling musician/composer, and her easygoing boyfriend, Rich (Arian Moayed). They're proud of their new pad but her out of town parents, from Scranton PA, are not convinced. They remain eternally dubious and even fearful about the Big Apple.
Reed Birney shines as the father, a solid school maintenance man now prone to anxiety. Jayne Houdyshell is equally brilliant as his affable wife, ever the healer. She slaves at the office manager job she's held for 40 years whilst making time for good works with refugees or looking after their Granny, also in tow, who is in advanced stages of Alzheimer's. Cassie Beck is the older sister, a lawyer, beset by both relationship woes and stress related colitis. Listed like this it all sounds grim but there is a great warmth to this family, bound as they are by strong ties of affection.
The play runs 90 mins straight and unfolds in real time. There are no cross fades or scene breaks. The characters talk over each other, as family members do, and subterranean resentments float to the surface in all too familiar patterns. It is mesmerising. In Daniel Zinn's excellent hyper-realistic two-tiered set, a spiral staircase connects the floors through which the characters move constantly.
Towards the end, the play literally darkens, as bulbs blow out in this shoddy building. Loud thuds are heard from above and indeed great use is made throughout of these ominous aural effects. Are they just a noisy upstairs neighbour?
It is disquieting and there is a wider sense that the world is a more mysterious place than we know. The various family members describe their predicaments but also their nightmares and yet this slightly supernatural leaning never unsettles a piece, which is at all times totally naturalistic and totally grounded in presenting the frailty of us humans.