It’s rare Broadway in Chicago schedulers slate a play instead of a musical at one of the large theaters in the Loop. When that show is “The Humans” – the winner of four 2016 Tony Awards, including Best Play – and when its touring production has a cast including Richard Thomas (best known for his Emmy Award-winning role of John-Boy on “The Waltons”) and Pamela Reed, your expectations are high.
But, while most of the show met those expectations, I felt the final 10 or 15 minutes were disappointing and even strange, leaving me unsatisfied.
The play by Stephen Karam focuses on a family of six gathering in a somewhat dilapidated two-story New York City apartment for Thanksgiving dinner. The apartment is shared by Brigid Blake (Daisy Eagan), an aspiring musical composer, and her boyfriend, Richard (Luis Vega). Visiting from Pennsylvania are Brigid’s sister Aimee (Therese Plaehn), mother Deirdre (Reed), father Erik (Thomas) and grandmother “Momo” (Lauren Klein from the original Broadway cast). All six characters in the show are suffering from one or more of the following: physical ailments (e.g., “Momo” has Alzheimer’s and rarely says words that can be understood), financial woes (Brigid’s apartment’s “interior courtyard” is an alley full of cigarettes), relationship issues (Aimee’s girlfriend recently broke up with her) or career/job concerns (multiple characters).
Over the course of a 90-minute play (no intermission), we share many dramatic moments of this dysfunctional family that loves each other deep down, but definitely knows how to press each other’s buttons. Loud noises from the building interrupt the action on occasion and especially are upsetting – to on-stage characters and the audience – when they come during an intense “you-can-hear-a-pin-drop” moment.
The dramatic elements thankfully are complemented in Karam’s script by lines that provoke laughter.
“I’m an elephant in this photo, and I’m holding a funnel cake!” bemoans Aimee when a photo of her childhood is passed around.
Brigid tells her mother she may be going overboard in keeping Aimee informed: “You don’t have to text her every time a lesbian kills herself!”
Deirdre asks a daughter enamored by the “Superfoods” diet, “If you’re so miserable, why are you trying to live forever?”
These lines aren’t knee-slappers, but they sound like ones real people might say. The way they are delivered is more true-to-life than typically seen in a play: character dialogue overlaps. Also, when the six characters are gathered around the dining table, all four sides of the table are used.
Longstanding resentment and hurt, as well as secrets and pain, all make an appearance in this family dinner. A loud, physical outburst by “Momo” late in the play particularly is difficult to watch for anyone who’s seen the effects of dementia or Alzheimer’s firsthand. While no single family probably confronts this much on one holiday, the characters are well developed.
For a show that has such realistic interaction, a mostly dialogue-free final scene that leaves almost the entire stage in the dark is a letdown, with one character having to quietly confront internal fears in a scary, confusing environment. Despite an excellent two-level set, emotion-filled scenes and a strong cast led by in-demand director Joe Mantello, I cannot recommend you see “The Humans.” It’s not a spoiler alert to say the out-of-left-field “Twilight Zone”-type ending spoiled it for me.
• Paul Lockwood is a past president of TownSquare Players and an occasional community theater actor, appearing in more than 30 plays, musicals and revues since he and his wife moved to Woodstock in 2001. Recent shows include “On Golden Pond,” “9 to 5: The Musical,” “A Christmas Carol “(2014, 2016), “Into the Woods” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.” He’s also performed in Get LIT(erary) and Williams St. Repertory LAB Series dramatic readings, including the upcoming “Miss Expanding Universe” on Feb. 12.
WHEN: Through Feb. 11
WHERE: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago
COST & INFO: Tickets: $25 to $98. Tickets and information: 800-775-2000 or www.broadwayinchicago.com.