We’re back from our trip to New York to scout out productions you might want to see (or not), shows that might tour South Florida and scripts that might be worth reviving in our regional theaters – many of which with elements nominated for Tony Awards. We will run our reviews intermittently over the next few weeks. The shows include: Shuffle Along, School of Rock, The Humans, The Father, Bright Star and Waitress. Links to other reviews can be found at the bottom as the reviews run
By Bill Hirschman
Sometimes the confluence of talent that occurs in a New York City production with its boundless money and bottomless talent pool creates something that won’t be duplicated elsewhere. South Florida has proven that a regional production actually may be better in its own way, but it cannot replicate that specific recipe for alchemical magic.
It’s happening for a few more weeks in the musical Shuffle Along as Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Savion Glover and George C. Wolfe combine forces in a unique union.
Within two years, you’ll see the same thing with The Humans, the acclaimed Tony winner by Stephen Karam currently playing at the Helen Hayes Theatre. No doubt audiences across the country will soon see this fascinating look at family relationships on their local stages; in South Florida, it takes no imagination to guess which company will do it first.
Karam – the current golden boy of playwrights thanks to Speech & Debate and Sons of the Prophet – has inarguably written an acutely observant script about a family under siege by amorphous woes. But it’s not Death of a Salesman or Hamilton or August: Osage County. It’s just a justifiably laudable piece of classic dramaturgy delving into the 21st Century slide from malaise to disillusionment to fear gripping much of the country as the economy wobbles and teeters along with the American Dream.
The point is that the rapturous reviews and audience popularity, I’ll wager, are more a factor of the outstanding cast including Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell, direction from Joe Mantello and inspired designers that you won’t see in any other production. Again, you may see better in your backyard; you certainly will see different spins on the material. But this confluence results in a quiet but masterfully executed tableau so naturalistic and recognizable that it feels like eavesdropping.
Karam earns his praise for accurately creating familial bantering, teasing and rituals chockful of decades-old references, catchphrases, hoary jokes and shorthand built from a shared lifetime.
But this edition’s triumph lies partly in the chemistry of the cast who clearly illustrate the precise definition of ensemble acting (always an argument among us Carbonell judges). These characters know where each other has been, knows each other’s festering recriminations and yet remain in each other’s corner even while sniping at old differences. The cast imbues them, seemingly effortlessly, with a sense of comfortably slipping into familiar family tropes.
Some of the triumph lies in the deft line readings that mine multiple layers of meaning, initially unspecified angst and a complicated past that haunts the room. It’s very difficult to describe and has to be seen and heard to be appreciated. Karam and Mantello have dialogue overlap – not artificially (many modern scripts now specify this convention) but smoothly executed. Karam also provided silent space for unspoken sentiments although the subtext is clear, Again, whether this works as well with a different cast and director will be interesting to discover.
Mantello, a solid actor but ubiquitous acclaimed director, shows his skill pacing the challenging script. The banal dialogue and even the prosaic plot turns ought to drag, but Mantello’s slow, steady procession is fluid and agile. He guides the cast in credible almost invisible tonal shifts from comic to tragic to unsettling spookiness.
This is a strange portrait of the 21st Century America in which a family beset from without and within by crippling problems still manages to stick together. It is not an uplifting nor empowering movie of the week. The play descends as the lower middle-class family creaks and cracks – this is no Disney Swiss Family Robinson.
The action occurs at a Thanksgiving gathering of three generations of the Blake family in the dilapidated downtown Manhattan apartment still being moved into by the antsy animated daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) who is working two bartending jobs to make a dent in student loans and who has been forced to delay her dreams of being a composer. Alongside is her significant other, the affable Richard Saad (Arian Moayed).
The parents who fret about the apartment’s condition are Erik (Birney) a private school employee now reduced to being a janitor, and his wife Deirdre (Houdyshell) a veteran office manager whose bosses are now far younger and less experienced than she. The salt-of-the-earth couple who cling to a strong religious faith have driven in from their home in Scranton with senile mother “Momo” (Lauren Klein) in tow in her wheelchair. Rounding out the group is older daughter Aimee (Cassie Beck), whose severe colitis has cost her a job at a law firm and who is breaking up with her girlfriend.
Under the genuine bonhomie, warmth and wry frictions built over the decades, almost everyone is nursing secrets that will tumble out to test the family’s solidarity – including one devastating revelation.
The growing angst in the ramshackle apartment that seems like a haunted house is underscored by sounds and events such as lighting that goes out fixture by fixture and an accompanying increase in the strange sounds peculiar to a city ranging from the traffic outside to ominous creaks and groans from this pre-war building.
While much of the play is quite funny, Karam’s achievement is the intentionally unfocused but growing unease that mirrors the family’s sense (and most the audience’s) that they have lost any control over their lives and are vulnerable to the slight shifts in the winds of chance and fate. They are underpaid, overworked, underappreciated people who get finessed out of life. The playwright, director and cast have created people you pass on the street every day – or see in the mirror.
The work of the design team is downright brilliant. David Zinn has created a bizarrely idiosyncratic two-level space connected by a spiral staircase. Once a respectable home, it now has flaking woodwork and peeling puke green paint. The morphing lighting by Justin Townsend subtly changes as events spiral downward, especially towards the end.
This production won Tonys for Best Play, Houdyshell, Birney and Zinn. But one controversy surrounding the Tony Awards is that the committee has eliminated the Sound Design category. If they hadn’t, Fitz Patton’s work would have been a rout. In most plays, the sound designer’s work is intentionally subtle and integrated to be the aural equivalent of invisible. But the creaks, thumps and the final cacophony executed by Patton are crucial elements to the way the environment is part of the theme.
No question that The Human will have superb productions in the future, but this specific convergence of talents should not be missed.