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The neatest trick to accomplish, when writing an intimate play, is to find that spark which ties the issues and personalties of a few people to something inherently a part of everyone. That very concept centers Stephen Karam’s “The Humans,” the Tony-winning play just opened with the entire original Broadway cast at the Ahmanson Theatre. Every single person, and virtually every single issue, has some element with which we are familiar. The problems and conflicts the characters have with each other are not on their own earth-shattering, but they are (as the playwright himself has said) the things which keep us up at night.
How these issues emerge, how they intertwine, and how these people – who essentially love each other – deal with them is the play. It is funny. It is wrenching. It leaves one with some curiosity about elements outside the frame. It is gently remarkable theater.
The Blake family has gathered for Thanksgiving at the New York apartment younger daughter Brigid is just moving into with her boyfriend Richard. Parents Eric and Deirdre come somewhat hesitantly from Scranton, bringing with them Eric’s mother – commonly referred to as Momo – who is in the later stages of Alzheimers Disease. Joining them is Brigid’s older sister, Aimee, a Philadelphia lawyer wounded by the breakup of her marriage, and by illness.
The apartment is almost a character – with a ground floor portion on entry and a stair down to a basement kitchen and dining area, and some very strange upstairs neighbor whose actions create enormous booming interruptions to the family proceedings. Trash compactors roar outside the lower door. The light bulbs seem to have a life of their own. And the furniture, with a couple of exceptions, has yet to arrive. As the family readies for and eats dinner, wrestles with issues of expectation, religion, aging, traditions large and small, and the nature of love, the audience is drawn in to sit with them, and to understand what it is driving some members’ lack of sleep.
Reed Birney has a feel for Eric’s combination of taciturn, teasing but loving care, and internal wrestling with a faceless fear. As Deirdre Jayne Houdyshell embodies that mother who fusses, radiates a specific sense of humor, wants to fix everyone’s problems, and yet wrestles with secrets of her own. Sarah Steele embraces Brigid’s combination of family loyalty and resistance, making her both a determinedly individual person and one connecting the varied personalities together.
Nick Mills gives Richard the semi-attached attitude of the observer looking in on a unit he is now becoming a part of. His attempts at connection are treated with the earnestness necessary to keep him on an edge but not rejectable. It’s a subtly tricky performance. Perhaps most remarkable is the performance of Lauren Klein as Momo. Late stage Alzheimers is tough to watch in real life, and even tougher to recreate, yet she makes the mumblings and particularly the moments of rage absolutely believable.
There is a reason this play won an award while still off-Broadway for ensemble performance. It is absolutely seamless, with characters as comfortable with each other as families are. Director Joe Mantello choreographs the thing as much as directs it, using David Zinn’s two-tiered set with real finesse. The sense of family, of separation and togetherness, of tension and softening, ebb and flow as such a gathering does. A nod also to Fitz Patton’s sound design, creating as it does the character of an upstairs neighbor we essentially never even see, but whose presence proves startlingly intrusive at oddly apt moments.
“The Humans” is fine, fine theater. It speaks to all the mistakes people who love each other make, all the expectations we have of each other and of ourselves, and yet does so by being small, intimate, and very character driven. This is not splashy fun, but it Is often very funny. This is not about the world’s problems, but it echoes a humanity full of flaws even if full of potential good. Its very familiarity is its strength, and will rest with you long after the play, which is performed without intermission, is done.
What: “The Humans” When: Through July 29, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $130. Info: (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org
Near the top of anyone’s list of the musicals which changed the art form forever is Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.” With a story line wrapped in the murk of mid-life crises, rosy nostalgia, and personal upheaval, it spoke to theater-goers of the late 20th century as an echo of the times. It speaks still, its universality playing out the disquiets of our unsettling era as well. Add to that songs so strong concert versions of the show have developed an audience of their own, and the yen to see it fully, spectacularly produced again was overwhelming.
Thus, the Kennedy Center production of “Follies,” just opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. Everything is there: the compelling music, the emotionally charged book, the chance to experience show-stopper after show-stopper. This is what serious musicals in the modern era can be, but rarely are. Directed by Eric Schaeffer with an almost magical attention to detail, it allows for marvelous individual performances in the midst of a sense of ensemble, and stunning (or, in some cases stunningly poignant) visuals.
The story is set in a disintegrating theater, once home to Weismann’s Follies. Before the place is torn down, the man who produced all those shows has invited members of his many years of those shows – all those “Beautiful Girls” – to return for a reunion. Followed by the ghosts of the people they once were, a bevy of women (and a few men) relive their performances and struggle through the differences between their dreams and their lives.
Central to the piece are the duo of couples whose worlds intertwined when the two men were poor, hopeful, and hanging out backstage to meet and date their future wives. Those wives, chorus girls, dreamed of high romance, and worked to be the women the men dreamed of. A lifetime later, one sees how their futures have unraveled.
Victoria Clark plays Sally, the Arizona housewife who dashes to New York to meet, once again, the man she has come to believe she should have married. Clark balances the elements of pathos and obsessiveness in Sally without making her either too pitiful or too crazy. That, and she does justice to one of the show’s (and Sondheim’s) greatest torch songs, “Losing My Mind.” Jan Maxwell plays Phyllis, wife of a famed diplomat searching desperately for meaning in her outwardly glamorous but inwardly stultifying life. Maxwell’s Phyllis gradually unpacks a ferocious depth: her spectacularly dark and angry “Could I Leave You?” sends waves of emotion vibrating to the rafters.
Joining them, Danny Burstein makes Sally’s husband Buddy just enough of a shmo to emphasize the stagnation of her life. Then, in the dream sequence at the end, he brings down the house, singing and dancing up a storm with the “God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues.” Ron Raines gives the pompous Ben, Phyllis’ husband, just the right balance of aloof command and buried wistfulness. His steadiness is, in itself, an irritant until what’s underneath shines through.
Add to this remarkable single moments: Carol Neblett and Leah Horowitz as the oldest Follies Girl singing an operatic duet with the ghost of herself in her youth, Jayne Houdyshell’s delightfully unexpected “Broadway Baby,” the entire batch of women doing their best attempt at an old tap routine literally backed by their own, younger shadows. Indeed, the entire ensemble, young and old, puts everything into this production, keeping the pace moving and the general tone just light enough to make moments of drama have real punch.
Director Eric Schaeffer has created the large picture within the frame, turning what could be – and sometimes is – a series of mildly connected socko solos into a very cohesive and structured whole. Choreographer Warren Carlyle not only evokes the follies style with a seeming ease, but manages to balance the skills of some of the older performers in ways which keep the pace from slowing at important moments.
Derek McLane’s set design has transformed the Ahmanson into just the right crumbling space, and – again – his dream sequence set captures the essence of that era of theater when people went for beautiful girls on wildly colorful sets. Gregg Barnes’ costumes not only bring back the showgirl look when needed, they subtly define each character’s story in a subtle, structured way.
In short, this thing is luscious and lavish and absolutely a must-see. It is one show which must be done by masters, and this time it is getting the treatment it deserves. Bleak though its tone, it is a musical with something worth hearing interesting characters say, or sing. And if, at the end, problems aren’t solved, they are at least defined, and defined with music which has entered the American songbook, helping to give voice to a generation’s dis-ease. Indeed, subsequent generations have found what was originally said in (can it be) 1971 still rings with the same power, as change continues to outpace our dreams.
What: “Follies” When: Through June 9, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $150 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org