I’ve seen a heap o’ histrionics lately, and despite a few purported hits in town, nothing quite hit a home run for me– though some came close:
THE HUMANS at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre comes trailing a 2016 Tony Award for Stephen Karam’s play as well as a slew of critics awards and a nomination for a Pulitzer.
This production features sharp performances by a stellar cast led by Richard Thomas (TV’s “The Walton’s”) and Pamela Reed. They play 60-ish parents in a garden variety middle class dysfunctional family post 9/11. While the play has something to say about the human condition, THE HUMANS is neither “uproarious” or “hopeful” as described in my little press packet. It jangled my nerves as sat in my seat waiting for life as I know it to collapse around me.
The “situation” is ostensibly Thanksgiving, but it might as well be the apocalypse. Several generations of the Blake family have come together for a spare meal in the barely furnished lower Manhattan apartment that daughter Brigid (Daisy Egan) and boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega) have just moved into. The set features a two-storied dwelling, in cross section, and what follows is a diagram of dyspepsia.
The play begins in darkness with father Erik (Richard Thomas) standing immobile and alone, when out of nowhere, a loud thundering crash wallops the play into action. That sound ripples throughout in the form of ominous noises from above and below, within and without, sudden blown lightbulbs, phones and microwaves urgently going off. The dialogue seems deliberately calibrated to be too low to hear distinctly, and overlapped so as to add to the cacophony. I strained to listen and was mighty tense.
As the meal is prepared and served, tensions cook and erupt around relationships, religion, money, death. Things are either in disrepair, or half-baked. Daughter Aimee (Therese Plaehn) is falling apart inside and out; she not only has just broken up with her girlfriend, but her colitis-inflamed lower intestine needs work, and she’s been sidetracked for a promotion at her law firm. Grandma “Momo”s (Lauren Klein) brain is not working; she throws fits in the advanced stages of dementia. Brigid, a musician, is not working and is having trouble getting her foot in the door. Mom Deirdre (Pamela Reed) limps around on creaky joints clutching a statue of the BVM (“Blessed Virgin Mary” for the un-initiated) announcing that “SHE’s appearing everywhere– not just Fatima.” And Dad? Well he’s about to dump a big ugly secret on the whole party.
The characters mesh like a nervous organism, riding the waves of dysfunction on the ebb and flow of desperation. I found their troubles universal, but the characters themselves specifically uninteresting, somewhat mechanical, and just not warranting the heft of the existential load the playwright has given them to bear. I felt little compassion for these unremarkable, unlikeable humans– who might just look monstrous to monsters.
But the playwright is on to something; Yeats-like, Karam HAS evoked the anxiety of a millennium whose center is not holding. One of the characters reports that “at the subatomic level, everything is chaotic and unstable.” I found myself dragged along with the play’s gloomy undertow toward a place of “stoic sadness” in the face of impending entropy.
The final scene features Erik, post revelation, once again alone on the threshold of a portal leading– god knows where… when suddenly I remembered a shopping bag that one of the characters carried in during the first scene and dumped on the floor: BED BATH AND BEYOND. These days, “beyond” feels a little too close for comfort. Prepare to be discomforted. See THE HUMANS at The Shubert through March 25.
SKELETON CREW presented by The Huntington Theatre at the BCA Calderwood feels more conventionally human in the face of disaster. The show is set in the break room of the last auto plant standing in Detroit in 2008 on the cusp of the financial crisis.
The workers are each dealing with their own set of trying circumstances, from homelessness to pregnancy, starting a new business, and raising a family. All of them NEED this job but rumors of the plant closing cause fear in the ranks. Many monologues and dialogues ensue. These issues are all timely and reasonably engaging, but none of it feels profoundly observed, or even crucially at stake, and everything is wrapped up rather too neatly. Playwright Dominique Morrisseau offers nothing new here, and the show hangs on these performances to bring the work to life. The most compelling of all is Toccarra Cash as Shanita, the most productive worker of all– she’s pregnant and highly skilled. See SKELETON CREW at the BCA CALDERWOOD through March 31.
HAMLET brought to you by New York’s Bedlam theater troupe is now onstage at the ArtsEmerson Cutler Majestic. I saw this daring company’s “Saint Joan” (also in repertory here) a few years back and it was dazzling and revelatory and had me glued to my seat. This Hamlet has its moments, but doesn’t achieve that blinding intensity — perhaps the performances and concept are not quite as compelling. In director Eric Cutler’s hands, all the Cutler Majestic’s a stage, from orchestra to balcony, with the audience invited to migrate toward chairs in the proscenium as the play evolves. Once again a minimal cast in this case 4 actors –play all 25 parts.
The production startles us to attention in its opening salvo, sometimes left out, but I think crucial to set the tone and signal Shakespeare’s dramatic and thematic intentions: Out of total darkness comes an alarming cry, “Who’s there?” I was again, shocked, and yes: Who? What? Who is Hamlet? What has really happened?
Aubie Merrylees is an able Hamlet– a hipster in skinny jeans with a cool handle on the text, but no new arc on the character. His Hamlet is more lucid than “mad,” and can clearly “tell a hawk from a handsaw,” but he lacks intensity as time grows short, and the wind blows increasingly desperate. The most compelling performer here is Sam Massaro as the covetous Claudius who has offed Hamlet’s father and gotten it on with Hamlet’s mother. Massaro plays every part with brio and kept this frantic production in motion, though it didn’t really move me. Worth seeing if you’ve never seen BEDLAM before at the Emerson Cutler Majestic through March 25!