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Written By Stephen Karam (National Tour)

AT&T Performing Arts Center

Directed by Joe Mantello
Scenic Design by David Zinn
Costume Design by Sarah Laux
Lighting Design by Justin Townsend
Sound Design by Fitz Patton

Richard Thomas as Erik Blake
Pamela Reed as Deirdre Blake
Daisy Eagan as Brigid Blake
Lauren Klein as Fiona "Momo" Blake
Therese Plaehn as Aimee Blake
Luis Vega as Richard Saad

Reviewed Performance: 5/8/2018

Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Thanksgiving can either be a vibrant Norman Rockwell painting of a long table bulking from its weight of holding a humongous turkey that clearly was hunted at Jurassic park, plus a bounty of homemade fixins that grandma and various Aunts had made. Surrounding this table is every relative and friend imaginable that came far and wide. There is laughter, hugs, love, and joy. As you read this you are either smiling of this image because this is a familiar yearly tradition in your home. Or a frosty sheet of ice coats your heart and a bitter taste of anger fills up in your throat as you are reminded of those that destroyed this holiday for you. And it is Thanksgiving that playwright Stephen Karam takes us into his world and drops us smack dab in Chinatown in a lower Manhattan apartment in his masterpiece play, The Humans.

Karam debuted torrid comedy/drama in Chicago at American Theater Company in 2014. After a limited run Off-Broadway at the Roundabout in 2015, the production made its Broadway debut at the Helen Hayes in 2016. But the theater had to close for renovations, thus closed briefly and reopened at the Schoenfeld theatre. The Humans ended its run in January 2017 after 365 performances. It was nominated for six Tony awards, winning four, including Best Play and Best Scenic Design. During the 2016 New York Awards season, The Humans also was awarded Best Play by the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League, and New York Drama Critics Circle. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The moment you walk into the theater you immediately see why David Zinn won the Tony for his Scenic Design. His set is the seventh character in the play, it serves as the narrator and floats as the subtext between the six characters. It is a towering two-level apartment that Brigid and Richard have just moved into and they are the hosts for the family Thanksgiving. It looks spacious, but is it? Zinn’s scenic design bleeds subtext everywhere. The walls are white but have hints of smudge. The upper floor has two windows with plastic taped over them. One parent looks out a window and remarks that its an alley full of cigarette butts. The Top floor even has a ceiling, and between the two floors you see the inside of it, exposing raw decaying wood. Could this be showing the slow disintegrating of the middle class that Erik Blake (Richard Thomas) speaks of so much?

Upstairs is a bathroom (with white blinding light), downstairs upstage left is the small kitchen. Zinn designed the space wide, so that all evening long as scenes happen you could see various actors going through either mundane things (getting the food ready, going to the bathroom, making a phone call, etc.) or foreshadowing things that would happen later, all at that same time. As I said, Zinn made his set the seventh character, so when the arc of Karam’s writing shifts in such an astounding way, you will get my point.

Stephen Karam’s writing is searing, dark, sharp, hysterical, biting, vociferous, and quite frankly one of the most devastating plays to breathe life on the stage boards in the American theater today. He creates this middle-class Irish family to come together for turkey day, with their yearly family traditions, and oh yes, their emotional baggage. But Karam writes this underlying humor and pathos of uncomfortable nervousness right out of the gate that something is just not right here. All of us know that at holidays we are to avoid the topics of money, religion, marriage, sex, jobs, in-laws, etc. Lord, not this family! Karam has this family take out gobs of these topics as they take helpings of the food set before them. Karam knows how to shape his comedy to be a two-edge sword. He has the audience laughing so loud, but my god the reality is its not really a joke as you see the reaction of who the receiver is of the joke. Damn, that’s how good his writing is! No spoilers, but Karam turns his arc in a way that I (nor the audience) was in no way prepared for. But let me at least tell you this. Listen to his sublime craftsmanship as a playwright because he puts slight hints in his writing and characters right from the get go. They are small and tiny. When the arc transforms, I could see several in the audience around me wipe tears in the dark, including myself.

When certain names are attached to upcoming Broadway productions, be it actors, directors, composers, choreographers, etc. there is a personal list that I keep to myself that I immediately know that I must see that production. Director Joe Mantello is one of them. I first became aware of his genius work when I reviewed his extraordinary Broadway production of Take Me Out in 2003. The very next year I reviewed his two new productions. A new Broadway musical the very weekend it opened titled Wicked. And Laugh Whore, a hysterical one man show starring the genius of comedy, Mario Cantone. This current Broadway season he is Tony nominated for his direction of the revival Three Tall Women and is currently directing The Boys in the Band (in Previews) which opens on Broadway May 31. His work in The Humans is superlative. Like the white walls on the set, it is piercing, blinding, and stark to the eye. He keeps his cast on this tightly windup twine of subtext that you see unravel ever so slowly, but by evening’s end unspool so rapidly that it snaps off the heads of everyone in that apartment. His staging and blocking is a master class that every director in this town should be required to see. I mean six characters, one set, and no intermission?! Take notes and learn! Mantello’s staging had us follow an actor because there was a reason and the payoff would later be revealed, and it emotionally crushed you. He staged moments that allowed his actors to let them express their bodies like hollow carcasses of defeat or pain in the shadows upstairs in later scenes. All due to the artistry of Mantello’s direction.

This Irish clan (who by the way have a connection to the tragic day of 9/11) are made up of Erik Blake (Tony Award Nominee Richard Thomas) who works at a private school in Scranton Pennsylvania, he is married to Deirdre (Drama Desk Award Winner Pamela Reed) who is an office manager, but she speaks proudly of her volunteer efforts. They have two daughters. Brigid (Tony Award winner Daisy Eagan) a composer, who works two bartending jobs and is paid under the table so that she can still collect unemployment. The other daughter is Aimee (Therese Plaehn), a lesbian and out of a relationship. She lost her job as a lawyer due to her health. Aimee has a type of cancer called ulcerative colitis (in a dramatic yet side splitting hysterical scene she describes her condition to her sister). Rounding out the family is Erik’s mother, Fiona "Momo" Blake (Lauren Klein), who was in the original Broadway production. Momo is wheelchair bound and suffers from dementia. The non-Blake relative is Brigid’s live in boyfriend Richard Saad (Luis Vega), who when he turns 40 will get money from his mother. However, he is the true voice of reason in this “family”. When Erik reveals his dreams to Richard, the advice is…well worth listening to.

This company of six powerhouse actors are electrifying and awe-inspiring. They are all natural, organic, and always-and I mean always- in the moment. And you want to talk about subtext?! Each of them mastered it from the second that walked into that apartment! There are moments all evening long when every single one of them had their arc and subtext collide that just stunned the audience, it was that realistic. And it is a testament of how damn good these thespians are to their craft. To top it off their chemistry was pure perfection.

However, three actors I particularly must commend (which is difficult to state since all six thespians were sensational):

Richard Thomas is spell pounding, I mean my god this actor goes in areas of his acting that I have never seen him do on film or TV before. His stage presence has this pitiableness quality that is heartbreaking. Your eyes keep darting back to him as he mournfully walks to the window or up the stairs, or he simply gazes out when he sits down. We later find out why. His comedic timing is incredible. But his dramatic range is what left me speechless. Thomas gave a staggering performance.

Therese Plaehn was mesmerizing as Aimee, this remarkable actress commanded the stage with that stage presence that would not let you go. She knew instinctively where to go in for the kill with her comedic delivery that she literally had to hold at times because the audience could not stop laughing. But her phone scenes upstairs were utterly devastating. The silence and her facial reactions were all we had to know what the answers was that she was getting on the other end of the line. Plaehn let her subtext ebb that she was still not letting go pierce through the shadows upstairs. Her final scene with her father was the most difficult and intense moment between them both. She gave an exceptional performance.

Finally, there is Lauren Klein as Fiona "Momo" Blake. I think because she reminded me of my own grandmother is why I fell in love with Ms. Klein’s performance. She clearly had the entire audience’s love and affection Tuesday evening. But to not ruin anything, all I can say is that in the arc of both Karam’s writing and Ms. Klein’s performance, she went beyond the line of just acting, and brought forth stark realism and painful honesty that you could hear a pin drop in that massive Winspear Opera house. That is a testament to the power of her acting. Brava Ms. Klein. Brava.

If you are one of my subscribers or follow me on social media, or have at least read one of my past reviews, then you know my forte, background, and addiction-which is primarily musical theater. Not many plays tour nationally anymore, which is a travesty if you ask me. The last national tour of a play that came to Dallas was in 2014 (which I reviewed). And that was Buyer & Cellar starring Michael Urie. I cannot think of enough praise to convince you see The Humans. Except this: Once the rights get released for theaters to produce this, it will NEVER, and I mean NEVER be done like this national tour. Not with this compelling direction, and NOT with this consummate cast. This very national tour and play shows us that the American Theater is still alive and creating.

THE HUMANS Written by Stephen Karam (National Tour)
ATT Performing Arts Center, Winspear Opera House
Through May 20, 2018