NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Thursday, February 18, 2016, 9:00 PM
“The Humans,” at the Helen Hayes, transferred intact from the Roundabout’s Off-Broadway production seen here. The cast includes Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Cassie Beck, Sarah Steele and Arian Moayed.
When the Blakes gather for Thanksgiving in “The Humans,” they’ve got a lot on their plates. As with the holiday turkey, the slices of their lives are light and dark.
Playwright Stephen Karam takes this familiar, if shop-worn, dramatic framework and transforms it into a 95-minute work that is fresh, funny, piercing and perceptive.
Seen last fall at the Roundabout Off-Broadway, the play features the 36-year-old writer’s uncommon strengths.
Karam (“Speech & Debate” and Pulitzer finalist “Sons of the Prophet”) has an eye for detail on a near-cellular level, an ear for authentic dialogue and a superlative ability to balance laughter and sorrow. There’s a lot of both here.
His latest setting is a Chinatown duplex that’s seen better days — but not a ray of sunlight. Karam’s metaphors can land a bit too bluntly.
Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele), the baby of the family and an aspiring musician, has just moved into the apartment with long-term boyfriend, Richard (Arian Moayed). He’s got a year to go until his master’s.
Playing sisters in “The Humans” on Broadway, Sarah Steele, left, and Cassie Beck share a sweet moment.
Erik (Reed Birney), the patriarch and a working stiff who’s put in 28 years at a school back home in Pennsylvania, arrives in New York with his wife Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), an office manager. Their elder daughter Aimee (Cassie Beck), a lawyer, and an Alzheimer’s-addled grandmother named Momo (Lauren Klein) round out the guest list.
Wine and conversation flow, as do issues — depression, insomnia, illness, and marital and money woes. It’s heavy stuff, but leavened with levity. Even Brigid’s apartment gets in on the act. The basement and first-floor space lets out ungodly groans and thumps, as if to echo the tumult in the Blakes’ heads.
Joe Mantello’s direction is smart and subtle, making excellent use of the bi-level stage. In an ensemble of all aces, a few actors stand out. Beck, a wonderful rising star, nails the hapless Aimee’s black humor. Houdyshell tickles and stings as an undervalued wife and mother. Birney anchors everything as a middle-class Everyman terrified of losing what he loves.
Who can’t relate to one or more of the Blakes? And that’s the point. Reflecting the times we’re in, the problems we experience and the futures we can’t control, the play isn’t just a family portrait. “The Humans” is a mirror.