The Humans on Broadway
By CATHERINE HIGGINS-MOORE
On January 23, the glitzy musicals and tourist-attracting shows on Broadway will have to share a little of their spotlight with the little play that could. Stephen Karam's The Humans will transfer from the Laura Pels to the Helen Hayes Theater. Although the Helen Hayes Theater houses 597 and the Laura Pels seats 424, the cachet of moving to Broadway overshadows the reality that the theatres are not all that different in size.
Critics and audiences have slated Al Pacino in the new play by David Mamet, China Doll, and Keira Knightley received only moderate praise for her turn in Thérèse Raquin, but no doubt the cast and crew of The Humans hold much hope that this play, powerful in its apparent ordinariness, will attract audiences who haven’t come to the theatre hoping to take celebrity selfies after curtain at the stage door.
While Deadline Hollywood called the off-Broadway production “exciting theater” and The Hollywood Reporter decreed it “tremendously moving”, a number of publications, including New York Magazine, have gone so far as to pronounce it “the best play of the year”.
Staged by Joe Mantello, whose previous directing credits include Wicked, The Last Ship and Other Desert Cities, The Humans will retain its off-Broadway cast for the move. The actors include the Tony nominee Reed Birney, The Good Wife’s Sarah Steele, Arian Moayed, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein and Cassie Beck.
The Blakes, an Irish-American family, have come together to celebrate Thanksgiving in the youngest daughter Brigid’s new Lower East Side apartment, breaking the tradition of celebrating in the family home in Pennsylvania. A struggling artist, Brigid has moved in with her boyfriend, an older man from a wealthy background. Cue awkward dinner-table conversations, and revelations precipitated by the alcohol and claustrophobic atmosphere. Lights go out and intimate moments are interrupted by mysterious bangs from an upstairs neighbour. Momo, the frail grandmother, has sporadic moments of lucidity, and Erik dreams about a faceless woman; these elements bring an otherworldly quality, layering something unexpected on to Karam's emotional kitchen-sink drama.
Karam’s writing is intelligent in its seeming simplicity, and the script is filled with poignant observations. Erik advises his daughter’s boyfriend:
"I’ll tell you, Rich, save your money now . . . . I thought I’d be settled by my age, you know, but man, it never ends . . . mortgage, car payments, internet, our dishwasher just gave out. Don’tcha think it should cost less to be alive?”
The dialogue is perfectly balanced light and shade. There is sibling banter and parental nagging but also clipped conversations that reflect warring perspectives on religion – and which dare to touch on this family’s taboos: dementia, debt, chronic illness, unemployment and 9/11.
The New York Times called Karam “a mature writer, very much in command of his gifts”. The widespread praise Karam has received in his latest outing is unsurprising given that he was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, the same year he won the Drama Critics Circle award for his last play, Sons of the Prophet. There was talk of that production moving to Broadway, but the move never came to pass, so this must be a particularly sweet moment for the young writer, who has a long-standing relationship with Roundabout Theatre Company (RTC).
RTC produced both shows off-Broadway, and it was their artistic director Todd Haimes who secured Scott Rudin as producer for this Broadway run. Haimes said of Rudin, when speaking to Deadline: “I wanted someone who was both a fine producer and was willing to commit both financially and emotionally to moving the production before the reviews came out”. Karam is now set to join the world of film heavy-hitters that Rudin dominates, not only because the powerful producer is backing his play, but because Karam has adapted The Seagull for film with a cast that includes Annette Bening, Elisabeth Moss and Saoirse Ronan.