Monday, 16 November 2015

Stephen Karam's THE HUMANS at the Roundabout and Taylor Mac's HIR at Playwrights Horizons

     I'm combining my comments on these plays for three reasons: we saw them on the same day, they are both riffs on classic American domestic drama and they both present versions of the death of patriarchal values.
     THE HUMANS takes place in a shabby, two-level apartment in Chinatown occupied by twenty-something Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele), a college graduate looking for an interesting job but supporting herself as a bartender, and her thirty-eight year old boyfriend Richard Saad (Arian Moayed), who is studying to be a social worker but also will at forty have a trust fund. Although the apartment is  almost bare, Brigid and Richard are hosting her family for Thanksgiving dinner. The family consists of father, mother, grandmother, who is in the throes of dementia and an older sister Aimee (Cassie Beck), who has severe colitis and has lost her job and her girlfriend. Brigid's family is suffering from the current heartless state of the American economy. Through a foolish decision, Erik, the father (Reed Birney), has lost his job at a parochial school and now works part-time at Walmart. Deidre, Brigid's mother (Jayne Houdyshell) has hit the glass ceiling in her office job. Erik and Brigid cannot afford proper care for his mother (Lauren Klein). Aimee's law firm is not at all sympathetic with her health problems. Brigid holds down two bartending jobs to make ends meet.
     The real problems are spiritual. Richard has suffered severe depression. Erik, who at first tries to maintain his authority as head of the family and his Scranton values is reduced to a state of terror by the end of the play. The terror comes from within and from without. Brigid and Richard's apartment seems to have a sinister life of its own. It is filled with mysterious loud noises. Kitchen utensils fall off the counter for no reason. Doors close on their own. Lights go out. THE HUMANS is a scary play about how little we really control our own lives. It begins as domestic comedy, but is  by the end really terrifying. The person who most experiences the menace is the patriarch, Erik, who is at first full of fatherly advice and judgment, but who ends up cowering in terror. Erik has lost his moral authority and has lost his way.
     What help is the family? There's much talk in the play of the importance of family, but each of the characters is really isolated, mired in his or her own crises. this all makes the play sound like a grim exercise, but THE HUMANS is also very funny. It's a warm, sympathetic play that shows sympathy for all the characters, even Erik, who causes the financial crisis that entraps his wife and mother.
     Joe Mantello has directed a pitch-perfect production. The cast is a brilliant ensemble. SPecial kudo's to Fitz Patton's scary sound design.
     THE HUMANS is scheduled to transfer to Broadway after it's Roundabout run. It will be a major contender for the Tony Award. See it at the Laura Pels rather than one of those user unfriendly Broadway theatres. Above all, see it.
     When the curtain opens on Taylor Mac's HIR, we see a house filled with stuff strewn everywhere. In one corner sits Arnold (Daniel Oreskes), the patriarch, who has recently suffered a stroke, wearing a dress, clown makeup and a clown wig. His wife Paige (the fabulous Kristine Nielsen), is running around like Lucy Ricardo on speed. Their son Isaac (Cameron Scoggins) has just been thrown out of his military job of picking up body parts because of drug problems and is about to return home. Isaac returns hoping that domestic order will save him from his addiction and the horrors he has seen on the battlefield. When he sees the chaos and his father's condition, he runs to the sink and vomits. Isaac's teenage sister is now his brother Max (Tom Phelan).
     During the course of the play we discover that Arnold was a tyrannical patriarch who violently abused his children and his wife. Now that he is physically and mentally weakened, Paige has replaced order with what she sees as creative chaos. She refuses to perform the domestic duties of a conventional wife and champions the radical gender politics of her transgender son. Even though he knows that his father was a monster, he wants the patriarchal order re-established leading to a battle between him and his mother.
     HIR veers from zany sitcom to horrifying domestic tragedy. I was reminded of the classic "son comes home from the war" plays, David Rabe's STICKS AND BONES and Arthur Miller's ALL MY SONS. Mac's play is funnier, more absurdist, than either of these plays. Everyone has a bit of monster inside, though Max, the transsexual is the only character who seems to feel both a need from liberation from traditional gender roles and compassion for those trapped within them. Arnold may have been a monster, but Paige is also monstrous.
     Niegel Smith has given the play the over-the-top production it needs and has cast the play perfectly. Kristine Nielsen gives another magnificent performance; first zany, then powerful and a bit terrifying. Cameron Scoggins matches her energy as her son and nemesis. Tom Phelan gives a sensitive performance as Max, who will need to escape his mother in order to survive. Phelan has an amazingly expressive face.
     Both these play are worth seeing, but if you can only see one, don't miss THE HUMANS.

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