Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Joe Mantello

Extraordinary Intimacy: “The Humans” Excels at the Ahmanson

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L-R: Reed Birney, Cassie Beck, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Sarah Steele and Nick Mills in “The Humans” at the Ahmanson Theatre [Photo: Lawrence K. Ho]

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

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“An Act of God” at the Ahmanson: Faith, Cleverness, and a Challenge

Sean Hayes (center) certainly knows how to make an entrance, with James Gleason (L) and David Josefsberg (R) in “An Act of God. [Photo: Jim Cox]

Sean Hayes (center) certainly knows how to make an entrance, with James Gleason (L) and David Josefsberg (R) in “An Act of God. [Photo: Jim Cox]

It’s an interesting concept – one that could, I suppose, only be carried off by someone with the experience at satire and irreverence which comes from a background in such as “The Daily Show.” Bring God down to earth, have Him take the form of a well-known actor, and then let Him share, preach, pontificate and even hand down new commandments for the next 90 minutes, with a bit of angelic assistance. Give the enterprise impressive staging and special effects to enhance the humor, and then sit back to see which audience members laugh the most.

Those are the essentials of David Javerbaum’s “An Act of God,” just opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. Sean Hayes, best known for his award-winning stint as Jack McFarland on “Will and Grace,” is God, or rather has been inhabited by God, who figures that being incorporeal might cause confusion. Hayes makes God chummy and snippy, intimate while offering up gossip, testy when crossed and ready to tackle everything from humanity’s false gods to its overarching judgementalism.

It’s a neat trick and Hayes pulls the thing off with a deceptive sense of ease, even on an opening night when his voice was giving him problems. Assisted by David Josefberg and James Gleason as the angels Michael and Gabriel respectively, he answers “questions” from the audience, interacts with Biblical stories and concepts, and chats about God’s kids – particularly Jesus whose visit to earth impressed his father for reasons you might not expect.

The thing is fairly static, as Hayes sits on a coach most of the time. Michael roams the orchestra section of the audience in order to give the impression of a question and answer session. Gabriel reads snips from the Bible, when asked, and shares God’s sense of humor over some of the more odd elements. Much of the dramatic element comes from Scott Pask’s otherworldly set design and Peter Nigrini’s extremely elaborate and animated projections. Under director Joe Mantello, the whole thing is more of a costumed lecture than a standard play.

But it works. At least, it works if you have some background in what the play is talking about, and a willingness to laugh at something many people are uncomfortable even questioning. The more skeptical, or at least liberal you are in relation to religious belief, the funnier you will find “An Act of God.” Also, the more you know of the items God references during the play, the more humor there is to be pulled from it.

Indeed, on opening night the audience seemed to fall into one of four categories: those who found just about every skewering of religion hysterical, those who laughed at the home truths encased within a discussion of the religion they believe in, those who were left clueless on occasion as they didn’t get the references, and those who were offended that someone would even write something like this. Thus, it depends on how well you handle satire related to – almost literally – sacred cows, as to whether you will find this comedy as funny as it often is.

It is very funny. Hayes is terrific, and at the very end achieves even greater humor in ways you have to see to totally “get.” Josefberg and Gleason enhance the tale with very specific senses of character without ever stealing focus from what has to be the main attraction. The show is fast-paced and engaging, and only when it ends to you realize how long you have been sitting still.

So, use the above as filter, but I thoroughly suggest going to see “An Act of God.” It’s worth it just to watch Sean Hayes do what he does so well, but it is also a chance – particularly for those whose religion is far more open-minded than what the media portrays as Christianity these days – to hear with great humor an alternative to the narrow conservative dogma which has so divided this nation. And yes, Javerbaum not only wrote for Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show,” he co-authored Stewart’s two “history” books with him. He’s good at poking fun at the stuffier elements of anything, but at this point in time getting people to lighten up on religion seems a good thing to aim for.

What: “An Act of God” When: Through March 13, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with one 2 p.m. performance Thursday, March 10 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $130 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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