Friday, February 09, 2018

Home, Not-So-Sweet, Home: Back Where It Began, 'The Humans' Remains Believable, If Not "Unbelievable!" -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Humans
a play by Stephen Karam
directed by Joe Mantello
National tour
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru February 11

At the very end of 2014, I saw a world premiere play called The Humans at Chicago's American Theater Co. in North Center.

Written by Stephen Karam and directed by ATC artistic director PJ Paparelli--who would tragically die just months later in a car accident in Scotland--the play received strong raves, most profusely from Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones.

And I think when I saw it, plans were already underway for it to be produced on Broadway under the direction of Tony-winner Joe Mantello.

As I wrote in my @@@@ (out of 5) review, I found the play to be excellent--well-written, well-paced, well-acted--but in its depiction of a family bickering over a relatively intimate Thanksgiving dinner in a Manhattan apartment, not quite phenomenal.

Since then, The Humans ran on Broadway for nearly a year--after bowing Off-Broadway--and won four 2016 Tony awards, including Best Play.

Photo credit on all: Julieta Cervantes
It's now on the highest-profile national tour for a non-musical play since War Horse more than 5 years ago.

And, through Sunday, back in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace.

Based on my seat being upgraded, for free, from near the back of the upper balcony to the very first row on the main floor, it seems that The Humans isn't quite filling the cavernous theaters.

But there were more than enough humans present in the second week of the Chicago tour stop to be rather impressive.

Just that a play with local origins went on to such high-profile success, on Broadway and nationally, makes me happy and proud as an avid supporter of the Windy City's arts community. And it's also nice to note how The Humans carries on the legacy of Paparelli, though oddly his name can't be found anywhere in the Playbill for the touring edition, directed as on Broadway by Mantello.

As with the ATC production, Chris Jones gave this rendition 4 stars (out of 4 on the Tribune's scale), and I was hoping I would be more enchanted that I had previously been.

But I wasn't. 

Which perhaps unnecessarily puts a negative-seeming slant on a play I very much enjoyed.

Maybe even more than I appreciated--as The Humans has a somewhat mysterious, even supernatural bent beyond what I clearly comprehended--the 90-minute one-act dramedy is deftly scripted by Karam.

As Brigid Blake (Daisy Eagan) welcomes her Scranton, PA family to a rather modest Thanksgiving dinner in the lower Manhattan duplex apartment she shares with boyfriend Rich (Luis Vega), the familial circumstances and conversations are certainly charged enough to hold one's interest.

Brigid's parents, Erik and Deirdre (Richard Thomas, once famed as John Boy Walton, and Pamela Reed, who I recognized from the Schwarzenegger film Kindergarten Cop) are initially a bit tight-lipped about the specifics, but one instantly senses some unrest about their economic well-being and other aspects later revealed.

Aimee (Therese Plaehn) is Brigid's sister, a lesbian and lawyer with a concerning health issue and problems in both her romantic and professional life.

The Blakes also bring with them Erik's wheelchair-bound and largely incoherent, Alzheimer's-striken mom, affectionately called Momo (Lauren Klein). That she is sheathed in a Philadelphia Eagles blanket made for a sight-gag presumably never before so nifty, coming--in real-life--just two days after the team won its first Super Bowl.

Neither Brigid nor Rich are robustly employed yet have fairly recently moved into an apartment that--even just as scaled upon the Palace stage--seems as if it would rent for more than $3,000/mo. (based an a quick check on units near Manhattan's Chinatown, as the play purports it to be).

Revelations about Richard's finances, which I won't delve into, make for a compelling part of the dialogue, especially given the contrast with Erik, long the equipment manager at a high school.

With Deirdre chiding Brigid about not being married, and some other family sparring as Rich prepares the meal, The Humans walks that line of feeling too much like real-life to seem a brilliantly incisive play, and featuring too many overtly dramatic moments to feel like a real family, especially on just one given day.

There's considerable quality--including in how it's staged and performed here--but whatever it is that has enormously smitten Chris Jones, repeatedly, as well as Tony Award voters, seems not to have connected quite so powerfully with me.

Given that, for my Chicago readers, there are few performances left to catch it here, this would seem a fine play to see nicely rendered a few years down the road at one of our myriad marvelous local theaters.

Such as where The Humans first came into existence.

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