November 18, 2015

Families in Crisis in "The Humans" and "Hir"

Theater, or at least serious theater, is supposed to reflect the way society feels about itself at that given moment in time. And right now, gauging by the work of some of our best young playwrights who have come of artistic age in the era of 9/11, global warming and the Great Recession, the picture ain't pretty.

Stephen Karam's The Humans, at the Roundabout Theatre's Laura Pels Theatre through Jan. 3, and Taylor Mac's Hir, which is playing at Playwrights Horizons through Dec. 20, both focus on the collapse of the American Dream and the bruising fallout that is devastating middle and working class families.

The shell-shocked Baker clan gathering for Thanksgiving dinner in The Humans includes the dad who's recently lost both his job and pension; his wife who's trying to hold onto a fragile marriage and to care for her Alzheimer's-afflicted mother-in-law because the family can't afford outside help; and the family's eldest daughter who is suffering with a debilitating medical condition her insurance won't cover and heartache after being dumped by her girlfriend.

At first glance, the youngest daughter who's hosting the dinner at the new duplex apartment she shares with her somewhat older boyfriend seems to be in better shape than the rest of the family. But she has a mountain of college debt, her apartment is largely underground, the furniture hasn't arrived and there are creepy sounds coming from the apartment upstairs.

Yet the Bakers aren't the kind of dysfunctional family that populate so many plays. Karam makes it clear at every turn that these folks love and support one another. But the world around them is pressing in hard and Karam, holding true to the way contemporary life really works, doesn't provide any easy ways out for them (click here to read some about some of his inspirations for the play).

Director Joe Mantello does a masterful job of showing all the degrees of pain this causes. David Zinn's intentionally awkward two-level set looks more like a bunker than a home and underscores the unease before a word is spoken. The slightly too-bright lighting by Justin Townsend and slightly-spooky soundscape by Fitz Patton subtly reinforce that sense.

And the show couldn't be better cast. It's almost a cliché to say how good Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell are in everything they do. But they are superb here as ordinary people who haven't asked much of the world and who have gotten far less than that.

They're joined by fine and moving performances from Cassie Beck and Sarah Steele as the grown daughters, Arian Moayed as the boyfriend and Lauren Klein who gives an almost silent, but still heartbreaking, performance, as the grandmother Momo.

The effects of this century's upheavals are even more visible in Hir. Its dad, a longtime tyrant, has had a stroke that's addled his brain and left him unable to even speak clearly, less than to assert his old patriarchy.

The show opens with him sitting onstage wearing a house dress and a clown wig. He's dressed that way, the audience quickly learns, by his wife Paige as retribution for all the years he demeaned her. She also laces his food with estrogen to keep him docile and sprays him with water when he tries to resist.

Their son Isaac, a marine returning home after a long tour in Iraq, where he served in a mortuary unit that often had to collect body remnants blown apart by IEDs, is upset by the condition of his father and of their home, which the newly-liberated Paige has blown up in a variety of ways,. 

He's also disconcerted to learn that his little sister is in the process of transitioning into a man, who insists on gender-neutral pronouns including the titular "hir," a blend of him and her.

Taylor Mac fans, and they are legion among cutting-edge theatergoers, may be disappointed to learn that he's not in this show (click here to read a Q&A with him) but they will probably be consoled by the fact that Paige is played by Kristine Nielsen, the longtime downtown favorite who has more recently won mainstream acclaim with her performances in You Can't Take It With You and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

Nielsen excels at playing eccentric—and often hilarious—women whose antics mask a deep yearning to be taken seriously. And there are moments when her Paige is almost frightening in her determination to overthrow the old order. 

The rest of the cast is a little uneven. My theatergoing buddy Bill liked Cameron Scoggins' portrayal of Isaac but I found him to be too one-note, as is Tom Phelan, the transgender actor who plays the sister.

I'm going to be honest, I found these plays to be as depressing as all hell. Maybe it's the Pollyanna in me or maybe it's because I'm lucky. But I don't find life, even in these difficult days, to be as grim as these plays portray them. 

And yet, both The Humans and Hir continued to haunt me in the weeks since I've seen them. I'm guessing that they'll be frontrunners when it comes time to award next year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama

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