GUEST CRITIC MICHAEL ADAIR IS TRANSPORTED TO NEW YORK, AND FAMILY TRUTH
The joy of a play like The Humans is that it can take a subject that feels as if it might have been done to death – a family gathering together for their Thanksgiving dinner – and cause us to forget that it has ever been done before. There is a moment where Arian Moayed’s character, Richard, awkwardly tells his girlfriend’s visiting family about one of his favourite comic books, where aliens share ghost stories about the human race because they consider us to be so frightening. Humans, Richard suggests, are as likely objects of fear and fascination to the monsters as those monsters might be to us. Watching my fellow humans in this superlative performance, I can see his point…
It is making its much-anticipated UK debut, with writer Stephen Karam and director Joe Mantello packing up their Broadway Cast, four Tony Awards and David Zinn’s glorious set to come to London. The set, recipient of one of those Tonys, is terrific, a rusty, run-down duplex in New York city’s Chinatown, two floors of peeling paint and creaking floorboards with ancient insulation stuffed between. Noisy neighbours thump around upstairs and there is ceaseless whirr and hum of washing machines next door. This transfer has clearly been a labour of love – even the smallest minutiae ensuring that we are absolutely ensconced in modern-day New York with the Blake family for their Thanksgiving. Gifts emerge from plastic bags from Bed, Bath and Beyond, the Coca Cola bottle being poured at the table is the slightly stumpier American shape, so has clearly been imported…there is no suspension of disbelief, everything feels plausible, actual, real.
The play introduces us to the Blakes: Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele) has just moved into the run-down apartment with her boyfriend, Richard. The two are struggling to make ends meet, Richard is a mature student, Brigid is waitressing whilst trying to find work as a composer. Visiting the apartment for the first time are older sister and lawyer, Aimee (Cassie Beck), mother Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), father Erik (House of Cards’ Reed Birney) and his dementia-stricken and wheelchair bound mother, Fiona ‘Momo’ Blake (Lauren Klein). The six characters share a meal – on paper plates, with plastic cutlery – their fold-out chairs squeaking uncomfortably beneath them. All have stories to share: money problems, sickness, revelations that build and break throughout the 90 minutes. Everyone, that is, except Klein’s ‘Momo’ – whose son insists had a ‘good day yesterday’ but whose condition has clearly deteriorated/ We are left with the family to unite in sharing tales of a proud Irish matriarch, who loved a drink and who was once the life and soul of these gatherings. We, the audience, are confronted on stage with only a shell of a person, frail, confused and mumbling unintelligibly.
The dialogue is impeccable and authentic, switching constantly and abruptly between hilarity, stubbornness, furious indignation, and complete exasperation in a way that only a family meal can accomplish. All can be forgiven, yet nothing can be forgotten. Multiple conversations take place across both rooms simultaneously and the cast deliver it superbly. There are polite disagreements over the pronunciation of ‘Carnegie’ – settled only by Aimee declaring ‘Everybody’s right, guys!’, and the traditional, tense generational impasse, with Birney’s patriarch at a loss to understand why his daughter is so anxious about money, yet insists on living in an expensive New York apartment . He smugly asks of her superfood diet, ‘If you’re so depressed, why are you trying to live longer?!’. Over the course of the evening Brigid becomes ever more exasperated with her parents: snapping, interrupting and shutting down even the mildest of statements. The two floors of the cramped apartment work beautifully, everything is seen, everything is overheard – it feels like a real family coming together to make do and endure one another.
Karam’s mastery is in making it all so authentic. The play takes place in real time, there are no scene changes – dinner is prepared, served and eaten in the company of the audience and Karam perfectly delivers the clenched jaw and aching temples so easily brought about by a tense family reunion. When the revelations arrive, they hit hard; the Blakes are fondly reminiscing about a past that may never have existed , and reluctantly adapting in the face of merciless change.
Believe the hype. The Humans is exceptional.
https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 13 October
Box Office: 020 7722 9301