Incredibles 2 – Film Review

It may be fourteen years since the surprisingly fabulous adventure of Disney’s collaboration with PIXAR, The Incredibles, was first revealed, but there’s no time lost in the story-telling of the sequel; Incredibles 2 takes off almost at the point where the original left off.

It’s three months later, and before there’s a chance to catch a breath, the incredible Parr family perform another service for the safety of the town’s citizens. They prevent the villainous Underminer (John Ratzenberger, continuing in his role as PIXAR’s voice-over good luck charm) and his giant corkscrew of a machine from drilling through the streets and robbing Metroville Bank. But the carnage done to the roads, the buildings, and its train service is so over-the-top, the authorities feel they have no choice.

Progress made for unwanted superheroes everywhere in the first feature, where superheroes with super powers were welcome, must now go back into hiding. The world doesn’t want them. They can’t afford them. As the former agent of the National Supers Agency (NSA) and now the head of the Super Relocation Program, Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks) says, “You want out of the holes, first you’ve got to put down the shovel.” And before you get a chance to scratch your head and wonder exactly what those deep-throated words of wisdom actually meant, the super family with their super duper powers, including close buddy Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), are back in hiding, pretending to be normal again.

But there’s a light at the end of tunnel. Tycoon, Winston Deaver (Bob Odenkirk) is a fan of superheroes and feels the world will always need them. With the aid of his computer savvy sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keaner), Deaver reaches out and invites the Parr family to take part in a publicity stunt. In the eyes of the public, if all goes well, it would make the supers look good again. But there’s a catch.

Only mom, Helen, aka Elastagirl (Holly Hunter) can participate. The rest of the family, dad (Craig T. Nelson), Violet (Sarah Powell), Dash (new voice, Huck Milner; the original Dash, Spencer Fox, grew older and his voice broke), and baby Jack-Jack have to remain in hiding, at least for the time being. But to make things comfortable, Deaver provides the family with a new, luxury, mountainside home in which to hide, far from the madding crowd. With dad in charge, the family can stay there while mom in her Elastagirl costume goes public once again.

What happens next is a new, dizzying adventure involving a super villain known as Screenslaver, a runaway ship with all the world’s leaders on-board, goggles that hypnotize, a book called Doozles Are Dozing, and a clueless pizza delivery guy. Plus there’s a new development with baby Jack-Jack. Those who remember the first adventure might recall how at the end of the film, Jack-Jack developed the sudden ability to burst into flame and become something close to resembling a devilish one-horned, flyin’ purple people eater of the Sheb Wooley song. In Incredibles 2, those talents are just the tip of a really dangerous and untamed iceberg. As dad instructs the kids when he has to leave the home, “No firing the baby around the house!”

In keeping with the James Bond flavor of the first adventure embedded with all the superhero business, from time to time, Michael Giacchino’s score faintly echoes those distinctive John Barry secret agent trumpet arrangements as Elastagirl, Mr. Incredible, and the rest of the family race at breathtaking speeds around town, zipping and zapping in and out of trouble at speeds faster than you can take in. And look closely at the interior design of that mountainside retreat given to the Parrs in order to remain comfortable while hiding away from the public’s eye. With its open area full of giant gray boulders by the entryway, an inside pool, and a view that overlooks a drop, you’d swear that writer/director Brad Bird had insisted his animators create the look of something resembling the Jimmy Dean secret hideaway in Bond’s Diamonds Are Forever.

The issue with Incredibles 2, however, is not so much the adventure – the climax with all of its last-second rescues, stunts, and overall creativity is actually more exciting to watch and certainly more inventive than many of the live-action superhero movies – nor is it with the wit, which is always there; it’s the lack of surprise. The original had a terrific adventure, but it was also an introduction to everyone and its unique, animated style. The enjoyment was more than simply being thrilled, it was the discovery of new and very funny characters presented with an individual look. In the sequel, we already know them; the style and the characters are already established. Baby Jack-Jack’s new found powers is the one area that develops family matters and takes things in a new direction, but overall, there’s a sense of something telling us that we’re really watching more of the same. That’s fine if what you’re looking for is a repeat of what you enjoyed before, but the appreciation of something fresh is absent.

Still, what we have remains very funny with characters you can’t help but like, plus the animation itself is every bit as bright, bendy, and kinetic as it was before, including the introductory Disney logo which is comically stylized to match the animation of everything to follow. It’s not quite the original – we now know we were spoiled – but when compared to animated offerings from other studios, it’s still pretty incredible.

MPAA rating: PG    Length: 118 Minutes    Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Ocean’s 8 – Film Review

Much of the marketing for director Gary Ross’ all-female ensemble cast of the heist comedy Ocean’s 8 refers to the film as being the fourth in the Ocean’s series. It’s really a spin-off. And given how the story concludes, depending on box-office reception and overall popularity, the whole thing will no doubt continue to spin in a new direction; at least to a 9, maybe even a 10. Knowing Hollywood’s lack of enthusiasm for risk-taking and a studio’s desire for easily identifiable franchises, consider it a given.

Originally inspired by the 1960 heist movie Ocean’s 11 with Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Las Vegas Rat Pack, Ocean’s 8 begins and ends with Sandra Bullock. She’s Debbie Ocean, sister to George Clooney’s Danny Ocean (the Sinatra role in the original) and it’s clear from the outset that being a criminal is in the family Ocean DNA.

If I were to be released,” Debbie explains to a parole board after serving more than five years at the New Jersey Women’s Prison, “I would just want the simple life.” She then adds, “You know, pay the bills.” Of course, she’s lying. That’s what she does. The moment she walks out, back into the real world with little more than a handful of dollars in her pocket, she heads straight to Manhattan’s Bergdorf Goodman and ingeniously cons the store out of giving her a handful of expensive beauty products. A saleslady even gives her the bag with which to carry everything through the Exit.

After that, without missing a beat, she cleverly extends the stay of an unwitting couple who had just booked out of a hotel, and moves into their room. The next step is to gather together her team of larcenous ladies who will meticulously rehearse what’s required to steal a Cartier diamond necklace, one that’s worth $150 million, and spread the wealth equally among themselves. “How long did it take you to work this out?” asks one of the gang, Amita the jewelry maker (Mindy Karling). “Five years, eight months, and five days,” replies Debbie, “Give or take.”

Like the trilogy of Clooney Ocean movies, the emphasis with Ocean’s 8 is on a world of elegance and style. The attractive characters move among the wealthy socialites of New York at the annual Met Gala, the fundraiser for the benefit of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, ready to pull off the heist of the century right under the noses of real-life celebrities like Katie Holmes, Olivia Munn, Serena Williams, and Kim Kardashian. “Why do you need to do this?” asks Debbie’s partner in crime, Lou (Cate Blanchett). “Because I’m good at it,” Debbie replies. In reality, being good at it is only part of the reason. As things develop, included among the several twists and reveals is a story of revenge regarding the reason why Debbie spent five years in prison in the first place. But, like the outcome, that’s something for audiences to discover for themselves.

In addition to Bullock, Blanchett and Kaling, there’s also Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson, singer Rihanna, rapper Awkwafina (real name Nora Lum), and Helena Bonham Carter. And in keeping with the Clooney trilogy where Dan Cheadle delivered one of the most hilariously knee-slappingly awful London accents ever on film, Bonham Carter’s character speaks with a peculiar Irish accent. It’s not as painful as listening to Cheadle’s cockney, but it sounds odd, all the same. With a cast like this, one that also includes James Corden as a crack English insurance agent, flown in from London to investigate the crime, and annoyed that he’s having to miss an Arsenal football match, expectations of something special is high. Here’s the problem.

For a film billed as a comedy, Ocean’s 8 isn’t particularly funny. There’s mild amusement in watching Bullock maneuvering around upscale stores stealing beauty products, and there’s an element of fun watching an audacious heist in operation, but there’s little to no wit in either the dialog or the situations. And no one leaves an impression, not even Bullock who is at the center of most of the scenes. There’s no reason to side with any of the women and hope they get away with it, other than they’re played by performers you might like.

Like a well oiled-machine, the film is slick, but anything resembling a real conflict, one that has you leaning forward in your seat, questioning whether they’ll succeed, is absent. The whole affair just goes through the motions, ending with the stylish raising of a martini glass that was stirred when you had hoped for things to be just a little more shaken. Watching the actors talk of the fun they had on set and the camaraderie felt while filming may well be true, but it doesn’t come across on screen. It’s intriguing without being exciting. Perhaps in its effort to be classy, even chic, an edge was lost. The end result is underwhelming. Ocean’s 8 simply never takes off.

MPAA Rating: PG-13   Length: 110 Minutes   Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Hereditary – Film Review

It starts with an obituary. From there, right up until the final fade out, there’s a feeling of death and despair that permeates practically every frame of the two hour plus film. You can’t shake it off. And neither can Annie Graham (Toni Collette).

In the new supernatural horror film Hereditary, written and directed by Ari Aster, his first, Annie’s mother, Ellen has passed away. From what we learn, when alive, Ellen was not the easiest person to read. “She was also extremely stubborn,” Annie explains, “Which helps explain me.”

Annie and her family, husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), pothead teenage son Peter (Alex Wolf), and the youngest, daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) live in a genuinely wonderful looking wood beamed home, one full of room-dividing doorways that appears lost, buried in a mountainous terrain that in reality is just a short drive from town and the rest of civilization, but feels isolated enough to seem as if there is no one else in the world. And now it’s haunted.

The one that appears initially the most disturbed is the thirteen-year old daughter. A young girl with an adult face, Charlie might be seeing things. It’s difficult to tell. It’s only when mom insists that her daughter accompanies her brother to a high-school party that Hereditary‘s story-telling gears shift. Something calamitous occurs during and after the party, an event that changes the course of everything. Annie has already started to attend a series of meetings intended to help those who have recently lost of loved one, but a second tragedy is too much to bear.

From there, ghostly sightings in the house become a regular occurrence. Mom’s insistance on a family seance doesn’t end well. Plus, there’s something lurking in the shadows, but gone once the lights are turned on. And discovering that grandma’s grave has been vandalized just a week after the burial doesn’t help.

Hereditary is a slow-burn, a horror for adults only that relies not on those ‘boo’ moments, the kind that has teenage audiences reveling in a series of jump-scares, but a film that, through discoveries and slow reveals, stretches a disturbing atmosphere to the point where you can stand it no more. It’s conclusion is horrific, genuinely horrific. And it’s horrific in a way fans of the genre, and those old enough to appreciate it, rarely get to see.

Several of the conventions are there. There’s the attic that you hope no one enters. A dream sequence that you think is over, only to discover that it’s a dream within a dream. A séance where the unexplained occurs, yet dad annoyingly dismisses the evidence of his eyes. Plus, because Annie is a sleepwalker, there are times when you’re not quite sure that what you’re seeing is real or part of her mounting, disturbed imagination. The resulting effect is a malevolent atmosphere that is practically tangible. When teenage son Peter, sitting at his desk in the classroom, sees his reflection in the glass of a nearby bookcase and it smiles back at him, the moment chills. The coldness that must run down Peter’s spine in that classroom is experienced not just by the boy, but also by us. And the climax, once we finally get there, is thoroughly disturbing. It ventures into the supernaturally fantastic. But by that point, audiences are well prepped to expect just about anything.

By the film’s conclusion, what you should remember the most is not so much the chilling sight of the grinning ghouls hidden in the shadows of the house, or what occurs during the final moments up in the treehouse, but the performance of Toni Collette. Her introductory monologue at the Losing A Loved One meeting as she presents herself to the group and explains why she’s there, beginning with, “I have a lot of resistance to things like this,” is riveting. But it’s that anguished howl of horror and despair she exhibits upon the discovery of the death of loved one you’ll remember the most.  It comes like an unbearable, searing pain, one that burns into you as though your flesh had just sizzled at the end of a red-hot branding iron. Like the film itself, it may be the stuff of nightmares, but it reaches out and stays with you into the waking world.

MPAA Rating: R   Length: 127 Minutes   Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – Film Review

It’s a moment a parent never forgets. During the first year of our son’s life, my wife and I took turns looking after him during the day. We did it in shifts. I had the morning hours, then went to work. She had the afternoon after returning home from work. We passed at the door. Clearly, I had the better deal for one simple reason: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was on PBS in the morning. For almost two years, every weekday, I got to watch Fred Rogers, Lady Aberlin, Mr. McFeely and all the puppets from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, including Trolley. But it was something that happened in that first year, before our son’s birthday, that made all the difference.

During the first twelve months, he spoke little. But one morning, there we were, watching Fred Rogers go about his business, when the kind-hearted, nurturing television personality asked his audience, “Shall I feed the fish?” My son, who up until then had hardly said a word, leaned forward in his high-chair and said to the television screen in a soft, whispery tone, “Yes.” I did a double-take. I couldn’t wait to tell my wife when she arrived home from work. We had a breakthrough. Our son had said his first complete, fully legitimate word, and he used it correctly. And it was all because of Mister Rogers. A minor anecdote, perhaps, but in our world, at the time, it meant everything.

In the new documentary from director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? sheds light on the man who must have inspired American children everywhere to not only say their first word, but to get an understanding on the complicated world around them, and he did it in his neighborly, singularly avuncular way. The show was aimed at children between the ages of 2 to 5, but everyone, everywhere was invited.

Using new interviews, archival footage, fresh animation, and TV clips of the show, Won’t You Be My Neighbor creates an endearing portrait of an ordained minister from Pennsylvania who believed that what we saw and heard on the screens was part of what we became. With that in mind, rather than preach and teach from the pulpit, Fred McFeely Rogers felt that his calling was reaching the hearts and minds of the nation’s children through positive reinforcement on television.

As the film expresses, Rogers believed that the feelings of a child were every bit as important as the feelings of an adult. “He was always trying to get a message across in every show,” actor Joe Negri (Handyman Negri) explains. Thus on June 7, 1968 in a special black and white episode of the show, after Robert F. Kennedy was killed, the glove-puppet, Daniel Striped Tiger asks Lady Aberlin (Betty Aberlin), “What does assassination mean?” “Have you heard the word a lot today?” she responded.

It’s possible that several of the clips are scenes you’ve seen before. There’s the famous moment in 1969 (recreated in 1993) when, on a hot day, Rogers is in his backyard in the neighborhood soaking his feet in a small pool of cold water. Police Officer Clemmons (Francois Clemmons) enters and is invited to join him. The officer points out that even though he’d love to soak his feet with Mister Rogers and cool down, he didn’t have a towel. “That’s okay,” said Mister Rogers, and offers up the towel resting over his right shoulder. “You can use mine.” What’s important about that moment was that Officer Clemmons was black. At a time when segregation was still rampant in some parts of the country, and repulsive images of African-American children being forcibly evicted from a whites-only swimming pool was all over the news, Fred Rogers wanted to show children that sharing water and even a towel with someone else, white or black, should never be an issue.

Perhaps the best, and maybe the one moment when audiences watching the documentary will find themselves wearing the broadest of smiles, comes with archival footage of what happened when Rogers appeared before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications. President Nixon wanted the funding for PBS cut. After two days of hearing carefully prepared testimony from various public television supporters, lawyer and politician John O. Pastore, who chaired the subcommittee, was getting impatient. Basically he’d had enough and was ready to yank all PBS funding at the first opportunity. “Alright, Rogers,” Pastore announced from the bench with a somewhat dismissive tone to his gruff voice, “You got the floor.”

Instead of reading from his prepared testimony, arguing that shows like his own on PBS were invaluable when encouraging children to grow and to become good citizens, he put the speech aside and recited the lyrics to one of his songs from the show. Pastore listened, and was moved. When Rogers concluded, without missing a beat, Pastore surprised everyone by suddenly announcing, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”

Although they are not mentioned by name, when Fred Rogers died of cancer in 2003, at his funeral, members of the Westboro Baptist Church stood across the road holding banners proclaiming that Fred Rogers would burn in hell. With twisted logic, their reasoning was that the TV host taught that everyone was special, including gays, which for them was justification for eternal damnation. Plus, in a clip from Fox Cable News, the three morning hosts of Fox & Friends stated that Mister Rogers was evil – no joke, they actually called him “evil” – insisting that he ruined a generation of children by telling them they were special. But when he was alive, as though holding a mirror in front of those three knuckleheads, Fred Rogers had his own definition of the word. “Someone who tries to make you less than you are is the greatest evil.”

Once the film is done and you reflect back, it’s not so much the documentary you’ll admire, it’s the man himself. Artistically, director Neville’s documentary breaks no new ground. The interviews that praise the man with accompanying clips are as you would want, and expect. It’s the subject matter that makes Won’t You Be My Neighbor special.

As the documentary states, the universal question is this: Was Fred Rogers really like that in real life? The answer is the same as my son replied when the TV host asked his audience in ‘93 whether it was time to feed the fish.

Yes.

MPAA Rating: (Not rated)   Length: 93 Minutes   Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Mary Poppins – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

When the magical nanny Mary Poppins (Renee Kathleen Koher) first arrives at the Banks household on Cherry Tree Lane, she doesn’t fly in on a strong wind blowing from the east. Like the genie in Aladdin, she appears in a sudden puff of smoke in the middle of the living room. Your first thought, other than what a neat, theatrical trick, is that the Banks family, who witness the moment, might remark upon it. After all, it’s not something you see in your home everyday. But no one does.

Instead, Miss Poppins, so named because of her habit of popping in and out of the lives of the children she’s there to look after, is immediately hired, beginning the fun adventure of guiding the troublesome children, Jane and Michael Banks, into appreciating their family and becoming less troublesome in the process. Though, of course, if you saw the wonderful 2013 movie where Emma Thompson played the prickly author of the novels, P. L. Travers, you’d know that the real reason the practically perfect nanny arrived at the upper-middle-class Edwardian London home was to save Mr. Banks.

For its 100th mainstage theatre production in Peoria, like the character herself, Mary Poppins is a practically perfect choice for Arizona Broadway Theatre to present when celebrating such an important milestone. From the beginning, the overall success of ABT has always been to know its audience and produce what a valley dinner theatre audience expects. It’s doubtful that a play from either Tennessee Williams or David Mamet will ever open on the stage at West Paradise Lane in Peoria, but something like Mary Poppins that offers song, dance, and a special kind of theatrical magic that can thrill an adult as much as a child, is exactly the kind of show that should be on its menu. Your only hope is that the theatre doesn’t mess it up. Fortunately, here, that’s not the case. Just like Mary Poppins once her job is done, ABT’s ambitious production of the famous Disney sixties musical takes flight.

Those who have never seen the stage presentation and are expecting a basic retread of the Julie Andrews film are in for a surprise. First, while much of the original score is intact, there are new songs, some written in the same vein of the Sherman Brothers style, but not quite as memorable. Plus, the characters themselves have an edge that is closer to how author Travers wrote them, rather than the likable Disney style that smoothed those rougher edges out. In fact, it was the Disneyfication of her work that made the Aussie author so upset.

When in 1993 she was approached for the approval of a new stage musical, Australian born Travers, who in her later years had moved from down under and fully embraced a more British way life, insisted that whoever worked on the redevelopment of Mary Poppins for the stage had to be English. No Americans allowed. However, she passed away three years later and never saw the completed work.

It’s difficult to say whether Travers would have approved of the end result, but it’s easier to predict how delighted most ABT audiences will be. And like that description of the flying nanny, being practically perfect can also apply to Koher’s performance as much as it does to the character. This is not necessarily the Mary Poppins of the Disney film. There’s a no-nonsense stern streak to Koher’s Poppins that is closer in spirit to the firmness of the nanny in the book than the gentler one presented in the movie. P. L. Travers objected to the casting of Julie Andrews in the film. She should have no reason to object to Koher.

The new script was written by the man behind Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, and if there’s anyone qualified to write about London life during Edwardian times, it would be Fellowes. Here, Jane and Michael Banks – played on alternate performances by either Gracie Palmer and Julianne Creed as Jane, and Wyatt Chamoff and Aaron McCaskill as Michael – tend to lean on a somewhat unlikeably snobbish side.

When meeting the Bird Woman (Chae Clearwood, whose rendition of Feed The Birds is a musical highlight; a great song, wonderfully sung) Michael considers her “a horrible old woman” and wonders why Mary Poppins would want anything to do with her. He even calls Bert (Chris McNiff) “dirty,” someone that would never get the approval of Mr. Banks. Plus, with an air of snotty superiority, Jane calls the Banks’ houseboy, Robertson Ay (Conner Morley) “insolent.” Even the likable Mrs. Banks (Beatrice Crosbie) who in the show is an ex-actress, not a suffragette, shows a superior attitude when talking of the necessity of a children’s nanny. “All the best people have nannies,” she tells her husband. Even though what she says at that moment sounds slightly elitist, Crosbie makes her character someone you warm to very quickly.

As Mr. Banks, ABT’s ever reliable Jamie Parnell – you may remember him in recent productions of Funny Girl, Oliver!, Jesus Christ Superstar, Sweet Charity, and Camelot – gives life to the more difficult role of the father who loses his job at the bank. Mr. Banks displays a temper that Walt Disney would never have allowed David Tomlinson to exhibit in the film, but given the pressure that the character finds himself under, not to mention a backstory regarding the horrific nanny who looked after him when he was an impressionable and frightened child, Parnell manages to make the head of the family the most real and eventually the most sympathetic character of all.

As for that horrific nanny, Miss Andrew – not in the Disney film but in the book – Kathleen Berger may be on stage for just a short time in the second act, but she leaves with the kind of indelible impression that is hard to forget. Entering the stage in a clap of thunder, she’s the villain from a British Christmas pantomime, the kind that has children either booing, or hissing, or hiding behind the safety of their seats.

As Bert, the comical cockney jack-of-all-trades, Chris McNiff injects great fun into a character that is hard to explain. Like the film, you never really know anything about him, where he lives, or how it is that he even knows Mary Poppins. He even exhibits a little unexplained magic of his own during the Step in Time chimney sweep rooftop dance. Those already familiar with the stage musical may be disappointed that there’s no defying gravity moment when Bert climbs the theatre’s proscenium arch and tap dances upside down, but given the size of ABT’s wide stage, the difficulty may have proved insurmountable. Still, when the chimney sweep’s feet leave the ground and he performs a series of backward flips while hanging in the air by wires, the sequence appears impressive; he’s a foot-stomping Peter Pan covered in chimney soot.

Also impressive is Glen Sears’ layered scenic design. It begins with a painted scrim of the house on Cherry Tree Lane, which rises onto the set of the Banks’ home, which later parts to reveal the children’s wide bedroom. After that, it opens up onto the gateway to the local park. It’s only when we enter the park for a Jolly Holiday that the size of ABT’s expansive stage works against the show. Even with a cast walking and dancing from stage left to stage right, the cavernous arena is hard to fill, resulting with a curiously empty look and little atmosphere. When director Clayton Phillips’ otherwise engaging ABT production moves house after its final performance in Peoria on June 30 and starts a July run at the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix, the smaller and more enclosed stage area should make all the difference.

Pictures Courtesy of Scott Samplin

Arizona Broadway Theatre’s production of Disney’s Mary Poppins continues until June 30 then moves to Herberger Theater Center from July 6 until July 22

Posted in Theatre

The Humans – Theatre Review: National Touring Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

The setup could not be simpler, and it’s one that lulls you into thinking you know the formula. Told in real time – it’s approximately 95 minutes without intermission – the national touring production of the 2016 Tony Award winning play The Humans, now playing at ASU Gammage in Tempe until June 3, revolves around the dinner table.

It’s New York at Thanksgiving. Scranton PA residents, Erik Blake (Richard Thomas) and his wife Deidre (Pamela Reed), along with older daughter Aimee (Therese Plaehn), and grandmother Fiona, more affectionately referred to as ‘Momo’ (Lauren Klein, who played the role on Broadway), a wheelchair-bound character with Alzheimer’s, have gathered at the somewhat dilapidated Manhattan apartment in the city’s Chinatown area to spend the holiday dinner with their younger daughter, Brigid (Daisy Eagan) and her live-in student boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega).

When the play opens, papa Erik is standing in silence on the landing of the apartment’s upper level. Plastic shopping bags hang from each hand, but he appears to be carrying something else, something we can’t see; the burden of an issue that refuses to quit. He seems to be in a trance. It’s only when an ominous thump through the floorboards from the apartment above breaks the silence that he snaps out of whatever it is that is dominating his thoughts. But having seen him standing there, his mind a million miles from that apartment landing, you know it’s only a matter of time before there’s a reveal.

The first thing that strikes you about the play is the set. That landing where dad stood is actually the ground floor, the entrance into the apartment. Brigid and Richard have rented what they could afford, a run-down basement cement-block apartment lit by bare, white ceiling bulbs where the above level is the way in and the lower level, connected by a spiral staircase, is the live-in section, the dining room and the kitchen. The only window looking out is a restricted view of an alley that residents of the building, and presumably others, use as a place to stub their cigarettes, though Brigid likes to refer to it as an interior courtyard. Dad is not so impressed. “I think if you moved to PA, your quality of life would shoot up,” he states.

The conversation before and during the meal is a series of fast-moving family quips and sly critiques that constantly amuse. In fact, most of Stephen Karam’s script is angled heavily towards comedy with several laugh-out-loud, easily relatable observances that pop up and go off like mini firecrackers. “There’s no toilet paper!” a voice declares from the bathroom. And when mom emerges, she remarks, “Your bathroom doesn’t have a window,” as if a crime in the apartment planning had been committed. “I’m just saying,” she adds.

Over the course of the dinner we get to know each of the appealing family members and what life has done, and continues to do to them. With a premise such as this, you tend to home in on whatever character for whom you feel the most empathy, the one whose feelings and emotions are easier to understand from your own point of view. Older daughter Aimee is a lawyer, suffering from both colitis and a relationship breakup. Under normal circumstances, her condition, both physical and emotional, would be enough for some to feel they’d reached rock bottom, but Aimee’s humor and overall likable persona, due to both Karam’s writing and Plaehn’s performance in equal measure, continually buoys her character and stops Aimee from sinking and becoming lost in a morass of self pity.

Particularly heartbreaking is a piece written by Momo and read at the dinner table to the family. Alzheimer’s is a horrific disease; it’s the secret experienced by many but one for which we’re unprepared. Before the disease accelerated and Momo was able to reflect, she writes, “It’s strange becoming someone I don’t know.” The relatable horror is that many in the audience will be aware of what dementia is doing in their own homes, but rarely discuss. For the Blakes, if Alzheimer’s is hereditary, then it’s something extra to be concerned about.

But ultimately, it’s Thomas’ portrayal as dad that anchors the proceedings. Themes of regret, missed opportunities, employment, money, and the guilt of letting family members down because of a damage done that can never be repaired, are all incorporated into Erik’s character, and are all revealed in small doses as the dinner continues. He’s haunted by the thought that he could have been in the Twin Towers on 9/11. He was in New York that day, but the observation deck wouldn’t be open until 9:30, so he bought coffee and donuts at a place a block or two away to pass the time.

But it’s the theme of money for this lower-middle class character that continues to raise its ugly head. “It never ends,” dad remarks, referring to the ever-continuing list of monthly payments that rob him and Diedre of ever being able to save. “Mortgage, car payments, internet. Our dishwasher just gave out.” The comment may come as a mere conversational passing remark, but when it’s a theme that continually surfaces, you know there’s a major problem troubling the man, and it won’t quit. “Whatever gifts God has given us, in the end, no matter who you are, everything you have, goes.”

There’s an overwhelming guilt that Erik carries. He talks of dreams that plague him, and now it appears that thoughts from those dreams are spilling into the real world. And it’s here where the ambiguity of the play’s final minutes may divide.

In the way that Momo’s horrific dementia is making her disappear into herself, there’s an enveloping darkness that’s creeping into Erik’s life, suggested by an almost curious supernatural force that causes pots and pans down in the kitchen to suddenly fall to the floor, light bulbs to extinguish, and a door that slowly shuts, seemingly on its own accord. Eventually we’ll discover what it was Erik was thinking in that opening moment on the landing, and, like his mother’s disease, there’ll be no cure. But there’s a suggestion of love that always surfaces among the family, where any tragedy is overcome when the Blakes help each other, and it’s that unspoken feeling of hope, no matter how slim, that leaves the theatre with you. As the title suggests, they’re only humans, after all.

The National Touring production of The Humans continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until June 3

Pictures Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes

Posted in Theatre