Photo: Wesley Hitt / Courtesy TheatreSquared
When I was young, I didn’t understand what I saw in the fishing shows on television. “They catch a fish on every cast!” I told my mother with exasperation, knowing that my reality at nearby lakes was far different.
It was then that she explained the concept of video editing to me. They made other casts, she told me. But an editor streamlined them so all of the action can happen in a 30-minute block of time.
It is something like this with “The Humans,” the new play by Stephen Karam onstage through Feb. 18 at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville. This is a big catch for Fayetteville and T2. The show cleaned up at the Tony Awards in 2016, winning Best Play, among other awards, and Karam was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for the script. This production at TheatreSquared is one of the first after its Broadway run.
What: TheatreSquared’s “The Humans”
When: Wednesday – Sunday through Feb. 18
Where: Nadine Baum Studios, Fayetteville
Cost: $33-$44; a limited number of $10 are available for those under 30 years old
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or theatre2.org
Not many lines are wasted. The bait is thrown, and we’re hit by another reveal. A character calls an ex and we learn of her big, traumatic breakup. She reveals moments later she needs a specialized surgery to help her live a better life. Another character casually admits that her music career is dead as she reads a letter from what she thought was a trusted professor.
I do not know of a family that moves quite so efficiently between from big to bigger reveals at a Thanksgiving dinner, something along the lines of “Please pass the salad, and, oh, by the way, let me read a letter from a coworker explaining why I don’t have a career.”
But let’s forgive the Blake family for their expediency in dialogue and get to what matters: “The Humans” is a dense, slice-of-life look at the troubling realities of being human. It’s at times viciously funny, and at other times just plain vicious in the way the family members treat each other. Brigid Blake (played here by Halley Electra Mayo), who is trying to make it in New York City, has recently moved from her place in Queens to a duplex in Chinatown and in the process moved in with her boyfriend, Richard (played by Deven Kolluri).
The moving in before marriage part is met with consternation, particularly from her mother, Deirdre (Laurie Larson). A Christian woman who tries to sneak religious symbols into her daughter’s home and their conversations together, Deirdre brings up marriage at any available chance. But Deirdre stops far short of condemnation – she’s quite accepting of Richard’s hospitality and the invitation to the dinner in the new place.
There’s a lot packed into “The Humans,” and as Brigid says, “Everyone has their problems.” This is the American Dream coming unraveled in front of our eyes. Family patriarch Erik Blake can’t sleep and has a series of nightmares that may or may not be supernatural in origin. Deirdre doesn’t get the credit she deserves at her workplace of 40 years, or even within her own family. The couple jointly take on the responsibilities of caring for Erik’s rapidly deteriorating Momo (Katherine Forbes), who the family admits might be taking her last big trip away from their hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania. The Blake’s daughter Aimee (Molly McAdoo) is living in Philadelphia as a lawyer but her prospects for a partnership have dimmed. Richard is soon to graduate from school after obtaining a graduate-level psychology degree but admits to having to take a break a few years ago after suffering from a bout of depression. If Richard just tried church instead of antidepressants, Erik says, he might be better. Richard insists he is better.
It’s a mess, frankly. But a recognizable one, too. Money hangs over much of the activities of the show, as does a pronounced generational gap. There’s a dalliance into politics, the lingering dust of the 9/11 attack and a specter of religion as well. There may be a specter looming about, too, as Karam offers just enough mystery about a few happenings to make you question what is real.
What Karam does best is capture these characters, as did this production’s cast, which executed the lines and feelings of these men and women with ease. That’s not to make it sound easy. Moments like the nonverbal stammering of Erik as he musters the courage to make one of his reveals is extraordinarily tough to pull off. But the audience didn’t feel like he was forgetting lines, we felt like he was remembering his duty to his family. Credit is also due to director Shana Gold, a New York City-based director who has previously helmed several shows for TheatreSquared. I believe you’ll also be wowed by the apartment created for the show. I’m told that it’s the largest set ever constructed for a TheatreSquared play, and I suspect it is indeed larger than many actual New York City apartments.
Actual is a good word to use here. In some shows, characters ascend or change or become enlightened. In “The Humans,” they just live and learn and fail and hope, and those are very human things to do.
Note: “The Humans” playwright and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Stephen Karam will visit Fayetteville for a pair of appearances on Feb. 14. Read more about it here