Don’t ya think it should cost less to be alive?” asks Blake family patriarch Erik (Reed Birney) early on in Stephen Karam’s 2016 Tony-winning play “The Humans,” capturing in one line the heart of this captivating contemporary dramedy receiving a stunning staging at the Ahmanson Theatre (135 N. Grand Ave. Los Angeles) with most of the glorious Broadway cast. Within the familiar dramatic construct of a family holiday gathering, Haram skillfully – almost invisibly – sews together themes of faith and fidelity, marriage and mortality, raising provocative existential questions while keeping us laughing in the company of endearing characters.
The 90-minute piece is set on a single Thanksgiving afternoon, as young Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard (Nick Mills) host older sister Aimee (Cassie Beck), dad Erik, mom Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), and Erik’s mother “Momo” (Lauren Klein), who is in the late stages of dementia. Brigid and Richard have just moved into a duplex apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown, with square footage compensating for the lack of natural light and the building’s quirky circuitry.
Haram uses familiar conventions, juxtaposing parents’ concern for their children’s safety and choices with grown children’s resentment of their parents’ meddling, but somehow establishes from the beginning that there is darkness lurking underneath the amusing banality. Erik and Deirdre are plain, middle-class, Irish-Catholics from Scranton, Penn., each holding down the same job for decades. Brigid is a frustrated composer tending bar at nights, while boyfriend Richard is a little too old to be only just finishing his MSW. Aimee is perhaps the most obviously damaged at the start, as we quickly learn she has lost her longtime girlfriend and partner-track attorney job in the same year she developed ulcerative colitis.
After establishing these circumstances, Haram gradually reveals more about each of these flawed but loving family members. Secrets come to light, and even supernatural elements bubble up in a script that manages to expose so many fault lines of contemporary middle-class American life.
The gifted Joe Mantello reprises his Broadway staging, brilliantly orchestrating the movement of the action around David Zinn’s extraordinarily detailed subterranean dwelling. The cavernous Ahmanson can be brutally inhospitable to small-scale plays, but Mantello focuses our attention exactly where he wants it, moving our eye from upstairs to down and creating an intimacy I’ve never experienced in that theater. Justin Townshend’s lighting and Fitz Patton’s sound design surprise and startle exactly when they should.
Most of the sterling cast has been working together on and off for nearly three years, and it shows. With Mantello’s caring direction, they conjure the familiarity and chemistry of a genuine family as they tease, provoke, support and deceive each other. Beck and Steele have such a sisterly bond that they are sure to remind you of friends or family in their unspoken communication and ability to comfort and confound each other. Klein’s Momo is silent for much of the play, but her presence is almost always felt, and when her fits come on, it is deeply disturbing to watch. Mills understudied Richard in New York, and he has the easy deference and generosity of a young man born a rung or two higher on the ladder than the Blakes. Which brings us to Birney and Houdyshell, who both won well-deserved Tony Awards for their astonishingly detailed and real performances. The girls call their dad “big guy,” and Birney easily conveys the qualities of that moniker while having so much simmering beneath that we can’t wait to learn what’s really going on. And Houdyshell is a wonder. She is so skilled and at ease that she appears to be doing nothing more than living onstage as a mother who can be big and loud but whose deeply rooted faith and love for her family will see her through.
When the lights came up for the curtain call, I realized I hadn’t thought of a single thing throughout the play’s riveting 90 minutes except the challenges and desires of this American family. They transported me the way only the best live theater can. Don’t miss them.
The play runs through July 29. For more information, visit centertheatregroup.org.