Hampstead Theatre Main Stage, 3rd October 2018
Sometimes it can feel like the whole history of US theatrical drama is one long story of family dysfunctionality. Mind you you can see why. When it works, Miller, O’Neill, Williams, Albee, Shepherd, Wilson, Kushner, to name a few, it is hard to top. The immediacy and thrill of recognition, with the visceral power of the Greeks. Ideally you need some fairly immediate character flaws, a specific social and/or economic milieu and enough humour to leaven the tragedy. Then you can hit the jackpot of “state-of-the-nation” relevance with “deep, psychological” human insight. That’s why playwrights keep plugging away. at the genre
Of course the drawbacks can be obvious. Indulgence seasoned with too much autobiography, bombast, captivity of form and an all round failure to recognise that what you think is a resonantly universal experience may actually be just plain bloody dull to the audience.
The Humans came with some cracking reviews out of NYC, four Tony Awards and full houses through its runs and tour. Edward Hall, who is off to pastures new having transformed the HT, treading a fine line between the popular and the pioneering, says he was desperate to nab this for the HT. Then again he says that about everything he has imported from the US. Here though the Roundabout Theatre production has come hook, line and sinker from Broadway with cast, director, Joe Mantello, and creatives, David Zinn (scenic), Sarah Laux (costume), Justin Townsend (lighting), Fitz Pattton (sound). And I suspect that is what made all the difference.
The Humans starts in the most cliched fashion. The Blake family meets for Thanksgiving. In the recently acquired Chinatown basement duplex flat of voluble, fervent daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele), who is recently married to the assiduous, slightly superior Richard Saad (Arian Moayed). Solicitous Mum Dierdre (Jayne Houdyshell) and decent Dad Erik (Reed Birney) have come to the city from Pennsylvania with wheelchair-bound grandma Fiona “Momo” (Lauren Klein). They are joined by big sister Aimee (Cassie Beck). Cue a round of rapid family banter as the parents bemoan the location of the flat, Grandma’s incapacities are revealed and Aimee’s work pressures highlighted. All robust, knockabout stuff, very witty, but you have heard it a million times. Then slowly, but surely, perspectives begin to shift. In entirely naturalistic fashion we get see the financial, emotional and intellectual pressures and insecurities weighing down on this all-American family, so that, like the best of these sort of plays, it holds up a mirror to contemporary US society. At the same time a faint sense of unease, the uncanny, starts to pervade the flat. Not quite with the same intensity as say, Annie Baker’s John (John at the National Theatre review *****), but, with the building itself burbling and croaking, lights flickering, enough to add a further, if not in my view entirely successful, dimension.
The play is in real time, though the family let a lot of food go to waste (!), and the revelations tumble out in an entirely believable way. Brigid’s creative frustrations and Richard’s never-ending studying. Aimee’s girlfriend troubles, her partner has just left her, and illness is set to curtail her banking career. But it is Mum and Dad’s troubles, and the need to care for grandma, which most bring home the precariousness of life for even “middle” Americans. Depression, dementia, illness, making ends meet, rejection, even bowel problems, get a look in, but this is a play that never feels dour. Nor is it some bash-you-over-the-head polemic. These are still people you very quickly care for and hope that things get better for them. The ups, and downs, and general messiness, of family are adroitly set out. Love, and resilience, might just see them through. Or maybe not, since resolution does not follow revelation.
All this in just 90 minutes. And all thanks to the writing talent of Stephen Karam. It will probably come as no surprise, based on the above, when I tell you that Mr Karam’s last stage outing in 2016, (The Humans dates from 2014), was an adaptation of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, and that his was the pen behind the recent screen version of The Seagull, (which got so-so reviews, so has been relegated to my Netflix list). Tragicomedy is his thing, and his ear for the way people who are close actually converse, cross-talking, sniping, apologising, is remarkable. And it is razor-sharp funny.
The performances are outstanding. Timing is impeccable, like clockwork. I guess no great surprise given how long the company have been together on the play but it is still as strong an ensemble as you are ever likely to see. Many of them have worked before with the playwright and Arian Moayed who plays Richard even roomed with Stephen Karam at college apparently. The set, on two levels, joined by a spiral staircase, is sublime, and, with the harsh artificial lighting, conjures up the kind of grim, monochrome, institutional atmosphere that, even when the couple have unpacked, can never truly become a “home”. The six family members are, with some cleverly crafted exceptions, always on stage, there are no breaks or fades here, but the set means we can also see where they are not as it were, the empty rooms, which adds to the sense that of this not being your standard family drama, all crammed into one room.
I am assuming that Stephen’s Karam’s previous full length plays, Speech and Debate, centred on three misfit teenagers, and Sons of the Prophet, a story about a Lebanese- American family (reflecting his own Maronite Christian heritage), haven’t yet crossed the Atlantic. Based on The Humans I think there is a more than fair case for some-one putting that right. Thanks to Edward Hall I have seen a number of excellent plays at Hampstead Theatre from US playwrights in the last couple of years: Dry Powder by Sarah Burgess, Describe The Night by Rajiv Joseph, Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and a brace of Tony Kushner’s. And now this. I do hope his successor carries on the tradition.