Joe Mantello

Eternity Knocking

Holiday gatherings have provided the setting for many American dramas, from William Inge’s classic Picnic (Labor Day) to Anna Ziegler’s A Delicate Ship earlier this season, set on Christmas Eve. Ironically, Christmas was also the holiday observed by the Jewish families in Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Richard Greenberg’s The Assembled Parties. Now, in Stephen Karam’s richly textured new play, The Humans, Thanksgiving gets its due. First, though, this reviewer must declare that Stephen is no relation, although our paths have crossed and he is a charming fellow. [It will also be less awkward for me if I refer to him by his first name from here on.]

The Humans is set in a basement apartment in Chinatown, marvelously realized by David Zinn with sterile white walls and a spiral staircase that joins two floors, both visible. The upper seems to be below the street level, while the lower is a windowless sub-basement. Brigid (Sarah Steele), the female half of the couple occupying it, boasts to her skeptical parents of its uniqueness. When her mother, Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), observes that outside the barred upstairs window is “an alley full of cigarette butts,” Brigid defends it as “an interior courtyard.”

It’s not just the details of real estate in New York that Stephen gets right. The Blake clan that has assembled includes father Erik (Reed Birney) and his mother, “Momo” (Lauren Klein), who is in the advanced stages of dementia. From her bottle of Ensure to her unintelligible mutterings to her blossoming at the sound of singing, Stephen has captured the reality of someone in the throes of age and dementia, and the strain on a loving family.

Brigid and her boyfriend, Rich (Arian Moayed), have moved in together to the mild disdain of Deirdre—and it’s one of the charms of Stephen’s play that most of the disapproval of others’ actions voiced by the characters is muted in a way that indicates a fundamental respect for one another.

There are, however, hints of deep troubles in the family, from finances to health. Erik is cutting his own hair, and some comments lead one to believe that he a miserly streak. Brigid’s lesbian sister Aimee (Cassie Beck) has recently broken up with her girlfriend and has been facing serious health problems. She has also been laid off. There are other financial troubles that surface during the day, and only Moayed’s level-headed, easygoing Rich seems unperturbed—but then, he’s due to inherit a trust fund.

The disagreements and problems that arise are deceptively quotidian. The devout Deirdre brings a statue of the Virgin Mary as a gift—“she’s appearing everywhere now, not just in Fatima.” And she hints gently but repeatedly that Brigid and Rich should get married. Deirdre is also aghast at the condition of the apartment: loud thumping that comes from the apartment above and lights (handled by Justin Townsend) that seem to have a mind of their own, flickering on and off, so that an emergency LED light in Deirdre’s care package has to be sought out. Occasionally, too, a trash compactor rumbles nearby in the building’s depths (sound is by Fitz Patton).

Director Joe Mantello utilizes the two levels of the stage well, often with action happening simultaneously (though at one point, when all the characters are gathered on the lower level, a loud thud from the apartment above probably would not be heard).

The excellent performances are all detailed nicely. Mention is made of mom’s knee problems, and Houdyshell gingerly steps down the stairs, planting both feet on one step before lifting a foot to step down on another. Reed Birney invests Erik, who is carrying a burdensome secret, with weariness and anxiety. Cassie Beck’s Aimee is emotionally adrift and yet phlegmatic about her mother’s e-mails communicating gossip about friends getting ovarian cancer and lesbians killing themselves. And Steele’s Brigid is just enough of a pill to earn her a few demerits, but not enough to cause antipathy.

As good as the portrayal of the family is, Stephen has a last-minute twist that sets his bland title in stark relief and yet has been cleverly, carefully prepared. The Roundabout has commissioned all his plays, and although The Humans is only his third, its stagecraft makes one eager to see what’s next.

Stephen Karam’s The Humans is playing at the Laura Pels Theater (11 West 46th St. between 6th and 7th Avenue) in Manhattan through Jan. 3. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday-Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. The production has been announced for a Broadway transfer early in 2016. For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit

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Sentimental Vessel

The Last Ship, the new musical scored by Sting, has arrived on Broadway after a long gestation, including an Off-Broadway concert version at the Public Theater in 2013. The result falls into a niche of shows about the British working class and industrial strife. They include Billy Elliott, in which Margaret Thatcher is excoriated for breaking the miners’ union; A Time for Singing, a nearly forgotten, gloriously melodic 1966 musical about a Welsh miners’ strike that has just closed at the York Theatre; The Full Monty, whose unemployed steelworkers turn to stripping to survive; and The Boat Factory, a Northern Irish two-hander that visited the Brits Off Broadway series in 2013 and focused on a Belfast shipyard that had built the Titanic

John Logan and Brian Yorkey’s book for The Last Ship mingles working-class lives and hard labor with a light-headed romanticism. The story follows Gideon Fletcher, the son of an autocratic mineworker who expects that Gideon (Collin Kelly-Sordelet plays him as a teenager; Michael Esper, as an adult) will grow up in the same line of work. But Gideon wants to get away from his small town, Wallsend, a suburb of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in the north of England. Even after his father suffers a stroke and needs him to provide, Gideon plans an exit with his girlfriend Meg (Rachel Tucker). They talk romantic nonsense about becoming stowaways and pirates, but at the last minute she stays behind. 

Fifteen years pass, and Gideon (Esper) returns to Wallsend for his father’s funeral, with the intention of settling down with Meg. His expectation that she’ll be ready to resume their love affair is, of course, foolish. She is living with a shipyard worker, Arthur (played with a confident level-headedness by Aaron Lazar), and she has a son, Tom (Kelly-Sordelet again), who is 15, and, even to those flummoxed by math, obviously Gideon’s. 

The lyrics (also Sting’s) and book exalt the dignity of the laborers at the boatyard who are unemployed yet insist that the shipyard must  reopen. The new owner, however, intends to convert it to handling junk and salvage. “What are we men without a task to complete?” lament the proud shipbuilders, who are scraping by. They scorn the offer of retraining, seize the shipyard, and sing, “Steel in the stockyard, iron in the soul/We’ll conjure up a ship where there used to be a hole/And the ship sets sail, and the tale gets told/And the only life we’ve known is in the shipyard.” Sting was born and raised in the community, and one can feel the truth of the camaraderie and frustration in these lives.

The men plan to build one last ship, one that hasn’t been commissioned by anyone. Who’s paying for it? Father O’Brien, a parish priest (played with dry ennui by Fred Applegate), who has siphoned the money from a church building fund. “A man’s work is a sacrament,” he says. If the premise seems preposterous, it is drawn from incidents in Scotland in the 1970s and in Poland more recently, though possibly given a more romanticized spin. In spite of the working-class trappings and David Zinn’s vivid chain-link fences metal ladders, and catwalks, The Last Ship is a fable. But there are unusual elements too: religion, redemption, and grace figure in the story to a startling extent. 

Tucker’s Meg reacts to Gideon’s return as you might expect, acid at first, then softening. Lazar as the devoted, level-headed Arthur does a fine job making her choice difficult, offsetting Esper’s passion as Gideon. 

The show survives by dint of gorgeous music, even when the plot bogs down. Sting’s rich score is varied and Celtic, strong on fiddles and drones. There’s a nice comic number to launch Act II, and a first-act powerhouse one called “Dead Man’s Boots” that Gideon delivers about his father. The love ballads and wild Celtic verve are amply supplied in Joe Mantello’s superb production. And Steven Hoggett has choreographed testosterone-infused, foot-stomping dances. 

The book suffers from repetition, however. You may notice at the end of a song in the middle of Act II that you knew everything it tells you back in the middle of Act I, and wonder why the plot hasn’t moved more quickly. And the ending swells with romanticism without really solving the workers’ futures. As a piece of theater, The Last Ship is enjoyable to watch and listen to, and its message about the value and honor due to hard work is important. But whether it's completely satisfying may depend on your respect for a futile gesture.

The Last Ship plays at the Neil Simon Theater, 250 W. 52nd St. For tickets, call 877-250-2929, or visit


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