On Opening Night: Though Subtle and Sometimes Serious, Audiences Find Humor in Humans on Broadway

Opening Night   On Opening Night: Though Subtle and Sometimes Serious, Audiences Find Humor in Humans on Broadway
Playwright Stephen Karam's The Humans bows at the Helen Hayes, marking the Pulitzer-finalist's Broadawy debut. Somewhere between its Off-Broadway run and opening night, audiences found the comic wit in his Humans.
Sarah Steele, Cassie Beck, Arian Moayed, Jayne Houdyshell and Reed Birney
Sarah Steele, Cassie Beck, Arian Moayed, Jayne Houdyshell and Reed Birney

Stephen Karam's The Humans, which just had to trek one block west and two blocks south to reach Tony-eligibility country, arrived Feb. 18 at the Helen Hayes Theatre.

Fresh from an acclaimed, well-attended run Off-Broadway at the Laura Pels Theatre, it's a play that begins not with a bang but with a thunderous thud from above, scaring the bejesus out of Erik Blake (Reed Birney). He's just slipped and slid in from snow-pounded Scranton — wife (Jayne Houdyshell), daughter (Cassie Beck) and mother (Lauren Klein) in tow — for a Thanksgiving full of misgiving with Daughter Two (Sarah Steele) and her potential hubby (Arian Moayed) in Lower Manhattan. There are more, and louder, thuds where that came from, and Eric jumps every time.

Oh, that. That's just New York living. That's the old Chinese lady upstairs doing her laundry. Save for a fleeting glimpse of her leaving the building with her walker, she is never seen, but her jarring bombasts keep the Blakes on edge and vibrating. So, in honor of that ancient Asian who ruled the roost, producer Scott Rudin threw his opening-night party uptown at Shun Lee. It was cramped but accommodating and conspicuously (possibly deliberately) not star-littered like most first nights.

The play's space, bleakly designed by David Zinn on a barren budget, is a sunless, eminently floodable, split-level basement apartment. Most of the action occurs in the subbasement half — the living room and kitchen area — and, yes, there are frequent forays to the john upstairs. Dramatically, the play's pitched even lower, at dungeon level — thanks to the heavy emotional baggage brought in from PA.

But what may surprise you on a return visit is how fiercely and consistently funny the play is. It's a drama with, like most of its characters, "a terrible sense of humor."

Chalk that up to Karam's equally split-level sense of humanity — the malicious intimacy that happens with family in-fighting. Love and concern come wrapped in criticism and complaint — sorta on the level of "Here, let me get that scab for you."

"Stephen's humor is in the teasing — his tease-because-you-love philosophy," contended Beck, "and people recognized themselves in that. That's why the meanness is amusing. I always knew what was funny in the play. I remember when we first did the run-through, one of our understudies came up to me and said, 'I had no idea it was so funny.' Not me. The responses from the audiences have been wonderful, and they've been different. We never do the same show twice, which is fantastic. The writing lets you do that. The beauty of the writing is that we're not having to hit any marks. We really just get to go out there and live it and breathe it."

The one character who wears a happy face throughout (although it starts to solidify toward the end) is the official nonmember of the family, the host/prospective groom, making nice, tap dancing as fast as he can for visitors. There's no mistaking Moayed. He's the Iranian-born actor among the Irish characters on stage. He said his own melancholy won't set in until May 2, when he tackles Hamlet for a Red Bull Theater reading. "What else could follow this?" he cracked.

Sarah Steele, Arian Moayed, Jayne Houdyshell and Lauren Klein
Sarah Steele, Arian Moayed, Jayne Houdyshell and Lauren Klein

Moayed admitted he, too, was surprised by the hilarious reception that the play has been getting. "I think it was because we were in a paid-subscription house before. Now we have a paying audience. The laughter is lovely and intense for us, and it has been fun to find. This whole play is based on just the subtlest moves. If you pay attention, you hear some of the most intricate details about the human condition. Stephen did such a great job of making sure the attention is always at the right spot.

"Plus, this theatre is perfect for our six characters. That's what is getting to be the best part of the whole thing for us — the space really fits the show. And with Joe Mantello, our director, all of our work keeps getting deeper and deeper and deeper."

Birney nodded in agreement. "Joe has been unrelenting, and we really kept working on it so that we do act, and react, like family," he said. "It's a remarkable play, so meticulously written. Working on it, I have come to see how amazingly crafted it is."

Jayne Houdyshell, playing Birney's wife and speaking volumes merely by raising a heavy eyelid or throwing a darting look, seems to be acting effortlessly. "In some sense, I am," she said. "I feel very inside this character. Always have. I intuitively knew early on who this woman was, and that's a testament to Stephen's writing."

Even the gibberish is golden, according to Lauren Klein, who plays the family's dementia-plagued matriarch. Mostly, it's a performance of inaudible moans and groans, but the actress revealed that all that was written out. "It's entirely scripted, and I memorized every line — every sound and syllable of every line," she insisted. 

"I know where 'Momo' Blake is at all times. No one has ever asked me how I make the character make sense, but I have my own little secrets. Of course, I think that the play and the characters are full of secrets, too, so, essentially, that's what I'm doing."

"Momo" is given to outbursts at times, and they play out emotionally in the piece like musical orchestrations. "I don't really know because I'm in it," Klein admitted. "I'm what I call 'a cell in the knee-cap of God.' That's all I am, but I just do it."

The youngest member of the cast, Sarah Steele, plays the most embattled role — the daughter who's pulled like a ragdoll between family and boyfriend, but then she's a seasoned veteran of other domestic wars, notably Off-Broadway's Russian Transport, where she found her off stage partner, Raviv Ullman, playing her brother.

Here, Steele couldn't be more pleased with the people who are doing the tugging. "I'm just so proud to be on Broadway with them," she confessed. "Pretty much all of them I've seen in shows where they've been my favorite thing about the show."

The Humans is Karam's third play in New York (after Speech & Debate and his Pulitzer finalist, Sons of the Prophet) and first to go from the Laura Pels to Broadway.

For that, he acknowledged the heavy-lifters: "Joe and this cast are so incredible, they make the writing better. They're so talented they can shape and sculpt the work."

He buzzed blissfully about the party like the poster boy for a happy childhood. "Fact is, my family's here tonight to celebrate with me — a united family," he loved to add.

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