The entire action of Stephen Karam’s play The Humans takes place in the Chinatown apartment that 26-year-old Brigid Blake has just moved into with her boyfriend, Richard Saad. It’s a duplex, but that doesn’t mean it’s luxurious: The window on the upper level looks out on the bottom of an air shaft littered with cigarette butts; the lower, windowless level backs up on the building’s compactor and laundry rooms. Brigid’s parents, who have driven from tumbledown Scranton for Thanksgiving, are quietly horrified; Deirdre, Brigid’s mother, is impressed only by the size of the cockroaches while Erik, her father, has dark visions of break-ins, collapses, and floods. (Coming from Philadelphia, Brigid’s sister Aimee is not nearly as freaked out, and “Momo,” Erik’s mother, is too lost in dementia to notice.) Would The Humans be so effective if its 95 minutes of 100-proof family drama took place in a neat little doorman condo? I doubt it: Location is destiny. With its irrational layout and strange, sickening noises, the apartment, as the stage directions put it, is “effortlessly uncanny,” as is the play itself.
I will throw the same praise at The Humans that I already pelted it with when it opened last October at the Roundabout. It is still the most, well, human play I’ve ever seen about fear and disappointment and the attachments that transcend them. But on second viewing, now that it has opened in a commercial production on Broadway, I find a few further things worth noting. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom about intimate plays, transferring The Humans has done nothing to diminish its effectiveness. In fact, reincarnated at the 578-seat Helen Hayes, Broadway’s smallest house, it seems even tighter and sharper than it did at the Roundabout’s 405-seat Laura Pels, one of Off Broadway’s largest. (Like Brigid’s apartment, the Hayes is “just big enough to not feel small” and “just small enough to not feel big.”) And David Zinn’s astonishing cutaway set fits beautifully into the exhausted décor of the 1912 theater, which is scheduled for renovation after this run — a nice meta-detail, since the need for renovation is one of the play’s themes. Brigid is always suggesting, inanely, that her mother take a spa day so she won’t “burn out.” (She’s already burnt out.) Erik isn’t sleeping, and has a bad back. Only Richard, from a wealthy background, has ever had the wherewithal to “reboot” himself, as he did when he became depressed in his early 30s. For the Blakes, renovation of any kind is beyond their economic and spiritual means. “Doing life twice sounds like the only thing worse than doing it once,” Erik says.
That a dour comment like that gets a big laugh is a sign of the richness of Karam’s writing, and of the tonal control exerted by the director, Joe Mantello. This could not have been an easy play to stage. Aside from the obvious physical complications — all six characters are onstage most of the time, in various areas, doing various things — there is the problem of keeping such a serious play, with elements that border on terror, from jumping too quickly into the deep end. Mantello maintains the balance beautifully, coming right up to the edge many times and then retreating, often into the prickly arms of comedy. If anything, The Humans plays funnier at the Hayes. This may, again, have something to do with the auditorium; the audience is packed much closer together, allowing laughter to roll around like a marble in a bowl. Or perhaps performing the show for three months at the Roundabout has simply tightened the cast’s timing. (Karam has barely altered the text.) To me the performances, all already excellent, now seem both more natural and more detailed: New beats have been found within old ones, resulting in a fractal complexity of small behavior that more nearly approximates the smooth skin of reality.
It’s easiest to track this effect in the work of Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell as Erik and Deirdre because the play’s drama proceeds from them (and because they are superb). If you want to see what thinking informed by emotion looks like, watch Houdyshell decide whether to eat a cupcake, and if you want to see what not thinking looks like, watch Birney half-choose to say things he shouldn’t. (For reasons he surely could not explain, he constantly needles Richard.) The transparency is astonishing, even when what’s underneath is muddy. But the Broadway production makes clear that this is true for the rest of the cast as well: Sarah Steele reduced to teenage petulance as Brigid; Arian Moayed, as Richard, ingratiating himself into self-contradictory pretzels; and Lauren Klein, as poor demented Momo, speaking from the depths of another universe entirely. Probably on different nights different characters will foreground themselves in your attention. For whatever reason, at the performance I saw last week, the human I especially fixed on was Aimee, played by Cassie Beck, whose “stoic sadness” in the face of economic instability, illness, and heartbreak looks uncannily like the warm diversionary snark of everyone I know. That’s because it is.
When a naturalistic play is working on so many levels (literally, in this case) an odd thing can happen: You can begin to feel that the characters are just going about their lives onstage but that you, in the audience, are acting. At any rate, you may find yourself gasping and yelping and, if you’re the type, crying. This can be an uncomfortable feeling, and I’ve heard some people complain about the genre effects by which Karam and Mantello get you there. For me, though, that’s why we go to the theater. At its best, as in The Humans, the genre is life.
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Old Hats, a vaudeville created and performed by Bill Irwin and David Shiner, is the cosmic (and comic) inverse of The Humans. It deals with many of the same themes, which are also the themes of classic clowning: poverty, incompetence, heartbreak, decay. But here the darkness of the human condition serves to validate and deepen the humor, not the other way around. In one bit, called “The Hobo,” Shiner encounters a series of increasingly absurd sadnesses — his liquor bottle is empty, a teddy bear he finds in the garbage is decapitated; the harder he cries, the harder we laugh. Likewise, the deadly seriousness of Irwin’s attempts, in “The Waiter,” to serve a helping of spaghetti from a sticky pot is what makes his failures hilarious. Well, that and his rubbery recoil when the noodles take control.
“The Waiter” is a very old bit, one that Irwin performed in Fool Moon on Broadway in 1993. Old Hats is itself a retread; a slightly different version played a sold-out run at the Signature in 2013. The sketches are mostly unchanged, except to the extent that they are automatically altered by the serendipity of audience participation, of which there’s a lot. (In one of the show’s highlights, Shiner “directs” four volunteers in a silent Western that goes woefully awry.) Even when the material is unaltered it’s still welcome, putting the sweet-and-sour pairing of Irwin and Shiner to excellent use both separately (“Mr. Business,” Irwin’s fight with an iPad version of himself, is a contemporary classic) and together. My favorite — “The Encounter” — finds the two men, in striped suits even baggier than usual, waiting on a platform, annoying each other mightily; through some trick of the knees within their voluminous pants, their relative heights switch back and forth as the argument proceeds. Eventually, they find common ground in comparing maladies and sharing medications. They become friends but miss the train.
As in all their best bits, this one combines physical humor, expert mime (no words are spoken), formal wit, and a poetic quality that, in Tina Landau’s light-touch direction, is never hammered home. It would not pale on second viewing. Between the sketches, though, we now get musical interludes from singer-songwriter Shaina Taub, gamely taking over the duties of Nellie McKay from the 2013 run. Taub, free-spirited instead of wacky, is perhaps an even better match for Irwin and Shiner, offering gently ironic reflections on the same dark themes but with bubbly melodies accompanied by a cheerful four-man band. “Everyone is gonna die, so lighten up,” goes one ditty. If only these clowns, or we clowns, could take the advice!
The Humans is at the Helen Hayes Theatre.
Old Hats is at the Pershing Square Signature Center through April 3.