Review by Kathleen Campion

THE_HUMANS_-_Reed_Birney__Sarah_Steele__Jayne_Houdyshell__Arian_Moayed._Photo_by_Brigitte_LacombeThe Helen Hayes was alive with laughter—belly laughs, laughs of surprise, and knowing laughs of “oh-yeah-been there!”   There were moments of giddiness, near-giggling.  Still, you cannot call The Humans a comedy.

Stephen Karam’s drama prickles with something not quite right very near the surface.  No matter how many times the characters deliver platitudes about the value of family and faith, the very real problems of contemporary life push in and shatter the tenuous comfort each might once have provided.

This evening in the dark feels original, which is an odd thing to say about a play with such familiar and familial trappings.   We’ve seen A.R. Gurney lay bare the eccentricities and fragility of upper class WASP families, while Horton Foote’s Texas families confront tragedy and long for home.  Arthur Miller’s families, like the one showcased in the current production of A View From the Bridge, use the family as a frame for one character’s moral failure.  The family as motif for society is as old as Oedipus.  There is a deftness in the writing of The Humans that suggests we may be seeing a classic in dress rehearsal.

In this old fashioned family tale, mom, dad and “Momo,”— the grandmother in a wheelchair and lost in dementia— have driven from Scranton to a shabby duplex in Chinatown. One of their daughters has just moved in with her guy and the two are hosting the family at a modest (the moving truck is a no-show) Thanksgiving dinner.

The bulbs burn out and the upstairs neighbor makes crashing sounds and the trash compactor startles the dad but the New Yorkers on stage and in the audience own all that as honor badges.

The parents have arrived to tell the girls something of moment, but delay and delay, so a sense of foreboding lingers as the family parades it’s eccentricities and ancient travails.  Each character carries a cross. Aimee has lost her love and is about to lose her job because of debilitating health problem.  Brigid who is trained to compose symphonies, works as a bartender as she confronts towering school-loan debt.  Deirdre, the mother, has been managing an office for decades, over which time her bosses got younger and her own rewards diminished. Erik, the dad, who has put in long years at a private school, is vaguely unsettled.  Brigid’s young man cooking the turkey, has his own delicate emotional history.

The script sneaks all this up on you.  Director Joe Mantello offers each character a star turn or two, to be sure, but more than that, he gives the audience, as voyeurs in the dark, time to discover what’s driving the small flare-ups and momentary unkindnesses.  We recover, as the family does, from the trifling, but telling confrontations.

The actors wear their characters with such comfort and familiarity, you can imagine them coming to the stage fresh from some sort of an outward-bound bonding adventure.  None of these fine actors puts a foot wrong, and the young ones are in heavy company.

Reed Birney’s Erik is deceptively bland to begin—telling his kids what’s what and what’s to be done.  Birney gets richer, moment to moment.

You sometimes forget how seamlessly Jayne Houdyshell (Deirdre) does her work.  In this production, her Deirdre enters hurt and disappointed and betrayed and scared.  And Houdyshell doles all that out with one hand and holds back with the other.  Cassie Beck (Aimee) breaks your heart, then delivers a punch line with the timing of a practiced stand-up comic. Sarah Steele (Brigid) is dazzling as she ricochets off one actor to be rescued by another.  Her’s is a wonderful role and she brings serious chops to it.  (I was not surprised to read it was written for her.)  Arian Moayed’s Richard, is charming as the traffic cop-cum-fellow sufferer; a thankless task in real families but on stage he too “undresses” in this crowded room.  Lauren Klein delivers Momo, the demented grandmother, straight up.

They feel as much like a real family with scars and tender spots and grudges and rages as any family I’ve ever met.  I’d like to say it is the actors who bring the magic or that it’s all on the page or that the director’s deft sense of pacing does the job.  But, hell, there’s lots of credit to go around.

If you can get a ticket grab it.  This is one of those terrific shows you will spend worthy hours with afterwards. You know, the kind of play that keeps on giving.

Written by Stephen Karam; Directed by Joe Mantello

With: Cassie Beck  (Aimee Blake), Reed Birney (Erik Blake), Jayne Houdyshell (Deirdre Blake), Sarah Steele (Brigid Blake), Arian Moayed (Richard) and Lauren Klein (Fiona “Momo” Blake)

Designed by David Zinn, costumes by Sarah Laux, Lighting by Justin Townsend and sound by Fitz Patton.

At the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St. Manhattan.  Runs through July 24, 2016.  Running time 95 minutes.