Tuesday, December 23, 2014

'The Humans' Provide Compelling, Not Supernatural, Holiday Dinner Conversation -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Humans
a world premiere play by Stephen Karam
directed by PJ Paparelli
American Theater Company, Chicago
Thru February 1

Like any other form of beauty, theatrical transcendence is clearly in the eye of the beholder. 

Which isn't to imply that the play I'm reviewing, The Humans, in a world premiere production at Chicago's American Theater Co. ahead of a mounting next fall on Broadway, isn't one that I found enjoyable, entertaining, engrossing, enriching, excellent and, yes, even beautiful.

But I saw it, feeling I needed to, at full price ($43, still rather reasonable for a first-rate new play) amidst a mostly sold out run, because the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones gave it 4 stars (out of 4) and named it his #1 show of 2014.

As I expounded on rather extensively as part of my July review of a terrific play called Exit Strategy, which I also saw because he highly lauded it, Chris Jones is by far the theater critic I read and trust most.

His praise has elicited me to see many shows I wouldn't have otherwise, and while I haven't always agreed with him entirely, I am completely grateful for the plays he has pointed me to.

All three parts of the preceding sentence are true here.

I found The Humans well-written and excellently performed. I'm glad I saw it and--while I wouldn't insist as vehemently as other critics or about other plays--I recommend it.

But, though I actually respect Jones' critical assessments far more than my own, I can't give The Humans my highest rating (or even @@@@1/2) and won't have it near the very top when I post my list of "Best Plays I Saw in 2014" in the coming days.

Essentially a 90-minute, real-time Thanksgiving dinner conversation, it is quite estimable, even excellent, but it just didn't feel phenomenal.

To me.

The framework of the play is that two empty nest parents who live in Scranton, PA--which years back had represented an escape from New York--come to come to Thanksgiving dinner at their daughter Brigid's new Manhattan apartment, which she shares with her newly live-in boyfriend. They bring the father's wheelchair bound, Alzheimer's stricken mother, and are also joined by another daughter, Aimee, a lawyer and lesbian who lives in Philadelphia.

Thanks to the script by Stephen Karam and a wonderful cast, the characters and conversation feel quite believable--for the most part.

I imagine the dynamic and discussions in The Humans are likely less dramatic or tempestuous than many real ones had over Thanksgiving turkey.

But, understandably, for narrative purposes, Karam seems to compress many years' worth of typical family drama--financial problems, illnesses, fledgling romances, breakups, infidelities, aging, dementia, career angst, personal wrongdoings, etc.--into a single hour-and-a-half conversation.

At the play's best--or perhaps worst--moments, the tension is palpable and each word riveting.

This is clearly a quality piece of writing, and as the father, Keith Kupferer is especially good. The Humans is actually the third show I've seen him in this year, and that I consider it the lesser of the three says a whole lot about the work Kupferer is getting and doing.

Kelly O'Sullivan and Sadieh Rifai as Brigid and Aimee feel quite genuine as sisters despite looking nothing alike, while Hanna Dworkin believably imbues their mother with a wide range of emotions.

Lance Baker is also strong as Brigid's boyfriend and Jean Moran does a terrific job playing the out-of-sorts grandmother.

So in no way do I mean to assert that there is anything particularly deficient about The Humans.

I imagine most who see it will find it remarkable, and perhaps all too relatable.

And in a weirdly convoluted way, that I wasn't quite floored by it may bespeak that The Humans is actually better than I thought. That it feels real, with some amped-up drama but no August: Osage County hysterics, likely suggests just how truly well it is written and performed.

So even if it doesn't feel all that nouveau, consequential or like the best play I saw in 2014 (or even within a span of four days), The Humans is/are worth getting to know.

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