The Humans and Hughie: A Tale of Two Experiences
About five minutes into The Humans, I felt a noticeable wave of relaxation take over my body. “This is going to be a good one,” I heard my inner voice say.
There is a distinct feeling of familiarity as The Humans begins to unfold. The fabulous bi-level set, designed by David Zinn, sports a dated looking New York City apartment with tons of potential. It’s a duplex! With a staircase! But very run down. And an upstairs neighbor that occasionally bursts forth with disconcerting booming, scraping sounds that can not be explained. It is mysterious and a bit creepy, but we’re really not sure why.
The Humans introduces us to a middle class Irish Catholic family from Scranton gathering at their younger daughter Brigid’s new pad in Chinatown for Thanksgiving dinner. Brigid has just moved in to this New York City apartment with Richard, her older, social worker boyfriend.
We’ve all been there before, really, haven’t we? Gathering for holidays with family members that talk over each other, relishing traditions of days gone by and opening old wounds that always manage to surface. We tend to re-create particular roles that we are destined to play with parents and siblings, no matter how old we are, chronologically.
The Humans is kind of brilliant in it’s every day unfolding of personal stuff and witty observations that we witness happening before our eyes.
Erik Blake, the father, played by Reed Birney, has a wistful look in his eyes, and reveals a truth to his daughters that is set to rock their world. Deirdre Blake, the mother, played by Jane Houdyshell, is sarcastic, bitingly funny, and always empathetic to the underdog. The veteran stage actress that she is, Houdyshell is perfection in her timing. There is even a catatonic old lady in this play, the grandmother, whom they call “Momo.” Momo (Lauren Klein) is wheel-chair bound, locked in the prison of Alzheimer’s Disease and manages to mutter some words every once in a while, as she is lovingly catered to by all members of the close-knit family.
And there is the central character of the play, Brigid, performed by the always really normal and down to earth Sarah Steele. (Sarah has done a lot of theatre, but you may know her as Alan Cumming’s daughter on “The Good Wife.”) Sarah has a specific patter of speech, which is interesting, and somehow makes every statement she utters sound like a fascinating observation.
Aimee, played by Cassie Beck, is Brigid’s older sister. She is kind of a mess, going through a break up with her girlfriend, and announcing at Thanksgiving dinner that she is being let go from her law firm. She is likeable, strong and funny. And finally, Richard, the boyfriend, performed by Arian Moayed, is the kind of cool guy you might meet at an intellectual gathering in the village. Like I said, we know these people very well.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Everything during the Thanksgiving dinner preparation and at the table goes along as fine as can be expected when families unite, until the bombshell is dropped when Erik must tell his daughters something very disturbing. Each character is exceptionally well formed with a unique arc.
The Humans, written by Stephen Karam, is exceedingly clever and engaging with a most curious ending. I will leave it to you to check it out and see what you think.
As much as I loved The Humans, I dis-liked Hughie. A two-hander one-act Eugene O’Neil play, Hughie stars Forest Whitaker as a down and out gambler, and Frank Wood, a late night desk clerk at an old hotel. Night Clerk (that is the character’s identification) doesn’t have much to say, until the end of the play.
This may be a bold statement, but some plays, even those written by masters like Eugene O’Neill, are just not meant to be produced. When the lights came up at the end of the one hour (mercifully) long play, I simply turned to my niece who accompanied me, and asked the question, “Why?” Meaning, why even mount this production?
The story revolves around Forest Whitaker’s character, Erie Smith, explaining his friendship and long standing relationship with Hughie, the former desk clerk at the hotel, to the new desk clerk at the hotel. Erie has lived there gambling, bringing “dolls” back to his room, and getting into trouble for a long time. He clearly does not want to go to his room that night, as the long hours of evening languish and begin to transform into early morning.
It was difficult to understand Mr. Whitaker’s speech at first, but by the time I did, I no longer cared to try to be engaged.
It’s a lot for Forest Whitaker to bite off, endless monologues about a character we never meet. And Frank Wood, with the few lines that he has, is on stage the entire time, gazing off into the distance. His character exudes indifference, shows he is not paying attention, and indicates (in my estimation) that he is stewing in his own personal hell. Mr. Wood actually is situated on stage as the audience files in to the theatre. We seem him gazing off then, and during the show as well. (I love Frank Wood, and only wish I could know what he is thinking about all the time he is sitting stoically.)
Photo credit: Marc Brenner
The star of the show is the set. A massive, hulking, depressing lobby of a faded New York City hotel, beautifully designed by Christopher Oram, who also designed costumes.
Aside from the lumbering quality of this play, and the lack of chemistry with the actors on stage, a note to production design. At one point, Mr. Whitaker takes a pen out of his pocket and starts to look at the newspaper, marking it up with his pen. He uses a retractable click pen. A glaring error. This play takes place in 1928. The retractable click writing implement was not developed until 1950.
The night I saw Hughie, it was frightfully cold outside. Maybe that explained the numerous empty seats I saw? Not really, because within seven minutes, two people simply up and left the theatre. Not a good sign at all. (By the way, as much as it is sometimes painful to sit through a production, I implore theatre-goers to have the courtesy to stick it out. Have respect for the actors and the audience you are disturbing.)
Forest Whitaker chose this vehicle for his Broadway debut. I felt for him as he seemed to be nervous and struggling with his delivery. Once again, it proves to actors who are familiar with shooting television and film scenes repeatedly, that live theatre is an incredible art form. There is simply nothing like it.
This just in. No surprise at all… Hughie is closing early, and will end it’s run on March 27.