Upon hearing the Stephen Karam's newest play would debut in Chicago, every storefront theatre fan in the city collectively gasped. He may not be a household name across the country, but to those who regularly read or see contemporary theatre, he has quickly become one of the most exciting names around.
American Theatre Company collaborates with Karam often - the playwright grew up with ATC's Artistic Director, PJ Paparelli - and though the results have been incredibly diverse, they never disappoint. In addition to two wildly hilarious productions of Karam's Speech & Debate, there was also the smash-hit drama columbinus and the touching Sons of the Prophet. Not only is The Humans comfortably at home amidst these other works, it may be Karam's best, and most cohesive, play yet.
The play consists of a real-time Thanksgiving dinner in New York, where a young woman (Kelly O'Sullivan, great as always) is hosting her family for the first time. She desperately wants her family to believe that her life is put together, but often overcompensates. The family arrives and is instantly uncomfortable, gently criticizing and questioning everything about the apartment, a well-loved older duplex with loud neighbors, creepy noises from downstairs, and light bulbs that can't seem to stay lit.
The Humans is already on its way to New York next, to be directed by Wicked's Joe Mantello, though it is clear this play was always meant to be performed with an audience inches away and a microscopic budget. Paparelli continues to use his familiar space in new ways, and the staging on the two-floors of this set is done masterfully. The family is often dispersed about the space in their own worlds, and depending on where you sit, you may see an entirely different production. This is just one of the many aspects of The Humans that is reminiscent of August: Osage County - another contemporary masterpiece and a worthy companion piece to Karam's newest play.
Almost every performance here is terrific. In addition to O'Sullivan's perfectly snarky daughter, Hanna Dworkin excels as her mother. Her performance is so true and fully-formed that you'll find yourself cringing, laughing and crying with her. Equally excellent is Sadieh Rifai as the outspoken lawyer and the family's other daughter. Rifai has a way of making any natural moment gut-punchingly hilarious in a matter of seconds. Lance Baker, as O'Sullivan's live-in boyfriend, makes bold choices that set him apart from the others. He is an outsider in a room of outsiders, and despite the character's best intentions, he is never fully welcome.
The Humans is a triumph - a play that will cause you to question your own family as well as the way you interact with others in your everyday lives. You will be forced to feel things you thought you had tucked away, safe and secret. Thanks to Paparelli's direction, Karam's script and the wonderful actors, the production is able to achieve all of this without ever feeling forceful or contrived. This must-see show is the perfect display of what Chicago theatre is all about, and it will likely be remembered as the definitive production of the play.
The Humans opened Nov. 10th, 2014 at American Theater Company and has been extended through Feb. 1st, 2015. For tickets and information, please visit www.atcweb.org.
Jackson Riley is an actor, director and writer based in Chicago.