Funny and chilling, it’s Humans’ nature

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The national touring production of Stephen Karam’s The Humans includes (from left) Richard Thomas, Therese Plaehn, Pamela Reed, Lauren Klein, Daisy Eagan and Luis Vega. The show is at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Sisters Brigid (Eagan, left) and Aimee (Plaehn) confer during the family’s Thanksgiving celebration. Photos by Julieta Cervantes

There’s something so comforting and so terrifying about family. That dichotomy is captured perfectly in Stephen Karam’s The Humans, the Tony Award-winning drama that is now touring the country. The superb production is at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season.

It’s a rare enough occurrence these days for a play to go on tour, but to have one this entertaining and unsettling is even more reason for celebration (side note: there are almost four times as many producers listed as actors). Karam’s play does something extraordinary by trying to be ultra-ordinary. Working with director Joe Mantello and six finely attuned actors, he is able to replicate reality all the while amplifying it, magnifying it, loving it and revealing its fissures and its darkest, scariest spots.

The play happens on multiple levels – literally and figuratively. The set by David Zinn creates a cutaway look into a dingy two-story apartment in New York’s Chinatown. The first floor is on ground level, the second is underneath in the basement, and the lightless windows look out on a dirty alley (not the “interior courtyard” described by the real estate agents). It’s the new home for young couple Brigid (Daisy Eagan) and Richard (Luis Vega), and though they haven’t received their furniture yet from the moving company in Queens, they’re still enthusiastically hosting Brigid’s family for Thanksgiving dinner.

So on those two levels and over the course of about 90 minutes, we watch a family come together for a holiday. Mom and Dad – Erik (Richard Thomas) and Deirdre (Pamela Reed) – have driven in from Scranton, Pa., along with Erik’s mom, “Momo” (Lauren Klein, reprising her role from the Broadway production), who, in the throes of dementia-induced oblivion, is having a bad day as she is wheeled around in her chair. Brigid’s sister, Aimee (Therese Plaehn), is also there, trying to be cheerful in spite of a broken heart (her longtime girlfriend has split) and an increasingly serious illness.

Everybody’s got their baggage here. It’s individual and it’s collective. There are valiant attempts to keep things light and festive and loving, but that baggage is heavy, and it unloads fear and anxiety at every given opportunity. The contrasting dark and light couldn’t be more pronounced in the physical production, with the split-level set often bright in one half and murky dark in the other (lighting design by Justin Townsend). This is a reasonably happy family – they really do love one another – and yet…what’s so scary about this show (and it does sometimes feel like a horror show) is that love can’t keep the encroaching terror at bay.

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These people are dealing with a hostile world, hostile to their middle-class ways and modest ambitions. As if the illness, employment woes and relationship stress weren’t enough, they also have to contend with the fact that two of their number nearly perished in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Their woes are internal, familial, national and international. The fact that they can muster any cheer at all as they dine off paper plates and drink champagne out of plastic cups is astonishing.

As with any functioning family (we used to call families dysfunctional way too much, but that still seems like a form of functioning), the jagged edges of hostility and truth occasionally cut through the civility and affection. Each time that happens, it’s harder to regain equilibrium. But someone usually manages, and that someone is most often Richard (a charming Vega), who is still getting to know his girlfriend’s family. Everyone else is too immersed in their problems to remain fully buoyant. The most unstable is the patriarch, Erik (beautifully, poignantly played by Thomas). He’s got physical back pain, he has gone through major work trauma, he’s barely affording medical costs for his mother, he survived a terrorist attack and he is suffering the ramifications of a terrible life decision. It’s no wonder that the anxiety attack the audience is allowed most deeply into is his – and we’re in to the point of practically seeing the monsters that haunt his dreams.

As Deidre, Reed is a marvel in the way she creates such a complex, believable woman who relies on her faith to keep her going. Her burdens have been fierce – among others, her decades-long job has her paid less than the 20somethings who are now her bosses. She perceives and processes a lot more than most around her would credit, but she is stalwart. She is taking strength where she can, marching forward on her arthritic knees, one painful step at a time.

The daughters demonstrate interesting differences in maturity. Plaehn’s Aimee is worn down by illness, heartbreak and job loss, but she’s a grown-up. You can see a lot of her mother in Aimee just as you can see Erik in Eagan’s Brigid, who’s trafficking in cockiness and insecurity to levels that are as annoying as they are endearing.

And Klein as Momo offers some of the evening’s most chilling and affecting moments by doing so much with so little.

The Humans is an incredibly understated play. It doesn’t offer the screaming family drama of, say, an August, Osage County. Nor is it after reassuring “love conquers all” platitudes. No, this is a family drama for our dark, troubled, defeating times. Love and family, so often the solid center, somehow don’t seem to generate enough light for this particular darkness. And that, is terrifying.

Stephen Karam’s The Humans continues through June 17 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$150. Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Sean Hayes is devilish/divine in Act of God

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Sean Hayes is a vessel for the almighty in An Act of God, David Javerbaum’s darkly comic play at SHN’s Golden Gate Theater. Below: Hayes takes a selfie with archangels played by James Gleason and David Josefsberg. Photos by Jim Cox

Like parochial school for fans of The Daily Show, the play An Act of God is a curious theatrical experience. All the ingredients are there: bells and whistles set, sharply funny script, charming star. But in the end, as in the beginning, it’s more lite than enlightening. Maybe it’s too much to ask that a snarky comedy about a grumpy god holding forth before an audience of heathen Americans have some spiritual heft to it, but the script comes close several times but ends up wishing it were a ditzy musical.

Written by former Daily Show writer David Javerbaum, this God had a nice run on Broadway last year starring Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory), and now this left coast version stars Sean Hayes, whose success in Los Angeles and now San Francisco has encouraged producers to take the show, and Hayes, back to Broadway.

It’s interesting that in both productions, God has been played by an out gay man, but to be clear about the play’s conceit, the actor isn’t really playing God. He’s playing an actor chosen by God to be a channel for the almighty’s message after years of being incommunicado.

The most interesting thing about An Act of God is that it reveals God to be, well, an act. God is all powerful, mighty and omniscient, but he’s also angry, imperfect, guilty, regretful, spiteful and full of flaws reminiscent of those in his human creations. “Faith is a sausage best not seen made,” he says. This is not a likable God, nor is he trying to be. He’s grown weary of the Ten Commandments as his greatest contribution to Western civilization, so he spends 75 minutes revealing 10 new commandments (technically there are a few holdovers from the original).

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He’s assisted by two archangels, Gabriel (James Gleason, who reads from a Gutenberg Bible and Michael (David Josefsberg), who takes (fake) questions from the audience and asks his own provocative questions like why God allowed the Holocaust and 9/11 to happen and why he lets children – or anyone – die of cancer. God’s responses to those questions are evasive. At one point he punishes Michael by making one of his wings fall off (the audience awwwwwws in sympathetic union).

If you know Hayes from his years as Jack (Just Jack! and jazz hands) on Will and Grace, you’re familiar with his sharp comic timing and seemingly effortless way with a laugh line. He’s a real pro, and he sells this material well. He also handles the darker transitions well, as when God discusses why he made Abraham, one of his all-time favorite humans, almost kill his beloved son Isaac or when he talks about his son Jesus and all that messy business involving dying for our sins.

There’s an edge to the comedy here, and director Joe Mantello resists anything warm, cuddly or reassuring in this divine chat session. Hayes could be sweeter if he wanted to be, but the play calls for something harder and more thorny. It’s surprising, then, that the evening devolves into an only somewhat ironic musical number about believing in ourselves. It’s all very “Up with People,” but it doesn’t obscure the fact that God’s true message here is one of ambivalence. He moves in mysterious ways for sure, even to himself.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Sean Hayes for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

David Javerbaum’s An Act of God continues through April 17 at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., S.F. Tickets are $45-$150 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Heavenly Angels exhibit takes wing

Angels caricatureThis Al Hirschfeld drawing of the Broadway Angels in America cast is on display at San Francisco’s Museum of Performance and Design in the exhibit More Life: Angels in America at Twenty. Below, Milton Glaser’s artwork for the Broadway production of Angels.

The millennium approached, then quickly fell behind us. Time marches on, but Tony Kushner‘s Angels in America remains a landmark achievement of 20th-century theater.

The legacy of the play that got its start at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre is on display at the Museum of Performance and Design, one of San Francisco’s best kept museum secrets. The exhibit hall may be filled with memorabilia from Angels’ humble beginnings on a red Formica table filled with scribbled-in notebooks to its domination of world stage (with the Pulitzer Prize and international posters to prove it), but what you really feel in this display is the extraordinary power of theater.

It doesn’t happen very often, but when a play or a musical really taps into the American psyche, imaginations are ignited and artists are pushed to do work they didn’t know they could do. MPD’s curator of exhibitions and programs, Brad Rosenstein, has created a testament to the evanescence of theater. Plays may come and go, but sometimes in their wake, the world changes because people’s imaginations were truly engaged.

At a press preview for More Life! Angels in America at Twenty, (the exhibit opens to the public Saturday, Nov. 6), Rosenstein talked about his connection with the play from the first time he read it then described how enthusiastic everyone was when he contacted them for information or artifacts for the exhibit. No one had time, he said, but just about everyone made time, including Kushner, whom Rosenstein accurately described as “the busiest writer in the world.”

Angels posterKushner was there for the preview, as were original Broadway cast members Joe Mantello and David Marshall Grant. The Eureka production was represented by Tony Taccone, who, along with Oskar Eustis, ran the Eureka and had the foresight to produce the world premiere of Angels, along with cast members Lorri Holt and Anne Darragh.

The ever-present image in the exhibit, not surprisingly, is wings. There are angels’ wings from numerous productions, including the original Sandra Woodall wings from the Eureka (beautifully restored), the only surviving wings from Broadway, the American Conservatory Theater wings (metal and fabric and strangely beautiful) and the hyper-realistic wings worn by Emma Thompson in the HBO movie. There’s also a set piece from Broadway of the Angel of Bethesda Fountain that looks like it just fell off the beloved Central Park landmark. There are angels in photos and on posters, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to sense a few actual angels hovering among the artifacts.

Kushner was saving his speech for the big pre-opening gala, but in accepting a proclamation from San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty proclaiming Angels in America Day, Kushner said, “The only thing left is to climb in a box and shut the lid.” He described himself as “overwhelmed” and “out of my head.” And he described the experience of the exhibit as if someone had opened his closet and out spilled posters and wings and people.

Rosenstein conducted about 50 interviews with artists involved with Angels over the last two decades, and he said he will continue to add new audio and visual material into the exhibit. Among that material will be footage from a number of different productions. Toward the end of the exhibition, there will be a screening of Freida Lee Mock’s Kushner documentary, Wrestling with Angels at a Lucasfilm screening room, and there’s talk at the San Francisco Opera of unleashing the Adler Fellows on a concert presentation of the Angels opera.

The exhibit is so inspiring you want to head immediately into a nearby theater and see Angels in its entirety. You’d have to head to New York’s Singature Theatre Company to do that right now, but Supervisor Dufty mentioned a local theater company he’s helping, Theatre Shark, as they try to find a Castro neighborhood storefront in which to produce the entire two-part epic. Until then we can wallow in the wing-fluttering glory of More Life!.

More words!

I wrote about the contents of the exhibit in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the article here. You can also read Rob Hurwitt’s interview with Tony Kushner and his piece on the legacy of Angels.


More Life! Angels in America at Twenty continues through March 26, 2011 at the Museum of Performance and Design, 401 Van Ness Ave., Veterans Building, Fourth Floor, San Francisco. Suggested donation is $5. Call 415 255-4800 or visit

`Wicked’ witches swarm Union Square

Green-faced fans of all kinds swarmed San Francisco’s Union Square on Friday, Sept. 26 – Wicked Day in San Francisco, according to a proclamation from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom – at a party celebrating Wicked’s return to the city that gave it birth next January. Photos by J. Lynne McVey


San Francisco has often been compared to the Emerald City of Oz. On Friday in Union Square, the comparison was more than apt.

A full-on party, complete with balloons, bubbles and babies bedecked in witchery, surrounded the noon hour in celebration of Wicked, the worldwide hit musical about the witches of Oz that got its start in San Francisco.

Wicked, which premiered at the Curran Theatre in 2003, has become a phenomenon of over-the-rainbow proportions. The show returned briefly in the summer of 2005, but this January, Wicked flies back into town – this time at the Orpheum – for an open-ended run that producers foresee lasting at least a year.

It was no coincidence that the face-painting booths, the singing and trivia contests, the proclamation from the Mayor’s office declaring Wicked Day in San Francisco and performances by cast members from the Los Angeles company occurred on the same day that “Wicked” tickets went on sale.

SHN/Best of Broadway CEO Greg Holland described Wicked as a “theatrical earthquake” first felt in San Francisco. “We were the first fans,” he said, “so we take pride in the show’s coming back.”

Producer David Stone who, along with producing partner Marc Platt, helped bring Wicked to life, said it’s an emotional thing to bring the show back to the place it started.

Looking around a Union Square crowded with miniature witches, moms and daughters, teenagers and fans of all stripes and colors, Stone said he remembered being locked in a hotel room with the entire creative team at the Clift for eight hours making cuts.

Looking up at the Cheesecake Factory atop Macy’s, Stone remembered taking star Kristin Chenoweth (who originated the role of Glinda) out for a giant piece of cheesecake to ease her worries when some of her funny lines had to be cut for legal reasons (MGM, the movie studio behind The Wizard of Oz, was being very careful about what the Wicked folks could and couldn’t use from the land of Oz).

“I remember Marc and (composer) Stephen (Schwartz) having an animated discussion in front of the Geary Theater that ended up in the street,” Stone said. “And one time, Kristin was taking a breather in front of the theater when a homeless man came up to her and said she looked like an alien. She was pretty upset until she realized she was still wearing her head microphone and earpiece.”

After the event over lunch, Stone recalled the tough birth of Wicked.

“New musicals just don’t want to be born,” he said. “The whole creative team basically saw the same show from the beginning, and we worked toward that, but the last 10 to 20 percent was tough to work out. We knew it was working and saw what it could be. That put the pressure on us not to screw up.”

Stone admitted that tension mounted, especially between Schwartz, director Joe Mantello and book writer Winnie Holzman.

“Everybody loves each other now – and why not? – but the nearly four months we took off between San Francisco and Broadway was tough. March and I did a lot of shuttle diplomacy. But by the time rehearsals started in New York, everyone was fine.”

Stone said those months in between the San Francisco production and the opening of New York was the best possible route the show could have taken. He credits Schwartz with the idea of not rushing straight to Broadway.

“I can’t even tell you how valuable that time was,” Stone said. “Stephen knew that once the train left the station, it would be unstoppable. It cost us a million and a half dollars, and it was worth it. I don’t know about these shows like The Little Mermaid, Young Frankenstein and Shrek and how they have time to get done what needs to get done between out of town and Broadway.”

Now that Wicked is a worldwide sensation – with four companies abroad in London, Australia, Japan, Germany and four in the U.S. in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and on tour – Stone finds his days consumed with witchy business that sells about $9.5 million in tickets every week.

But he has managed to produce other shows, some of which we’ve seen in San Francisco such as Fully Committed, The Vagina Monologues and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

He may be working again with the Spelling Bee team of composer William Finn and director/librettist James Lapine, who are reportedly at work on a musical version of the hit indie film Little Miss Sunshine. He’s hopeful about a rock musical that’s still evolving called Next to Normal about a woman (played by Alice Ripley) with bipolar disorder and the effect her illness has on her family.

Earlier in the day, Stone summed up his Wicked experience with a memory: the first preview at the Curran and Idina Menzel as Elphaba, the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West in training, makes her entrance and comes running downstage toward the audience.

“Here was this character people had known and been scared of most of their lives and she turns out to be nothing like they thought she was,” he said. “She’s more complicated than they could have imagined, and that’s a big idea to put across, but the audience got it in a moment. In that moment we understood what this show might be. This country likes to point fingers and say you are this: right or left, black or white. Maybe there’s no right or left or red or blue – only green.”

Wicked begins performances on Jan. 27, 2009 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$99. Call 415-512-7770 or visit or

The brilliance, literally, of Dolly Parton

There’s no getting around the fact that for more than 40 years now, Dolly Parton has been a bright light of show business. She quickly transcended her beginnings on country radio and corny country TV shows to become a pop icon, movie star and savvy businesswoman.

She’s one of the most recognizable women in the world, and the curious thing is that under all that hair, makeup, glitz and God-given curviness, Parton is an extraordinary talent. Her voice is so unique it’s immediately recognizable and difficult to imitate, and her songwriting skill – which is criminally underrated – will eventually have its own section in the Great American Songbook.

The 62-year-old Parton was in the Bay Area Tuesday night at the Greek Theatre on the UC Berkeley campus as part of her Backwoods Barbie tour. As amazing as she was – and boy howdy was she amazing – I was disappointed she didn’t mention the latest feather in her cap: Broadway composer.

One of Parton’s biggest movie and musical hits, 9 to 5, is heading to Broadway. In addition to the title song, she has written about 20 new songs for the show, which is directed by Joe Mantello of Wicked fame. The new musical has its world premiere Sept. 3 through Oct. 19 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles before heading to Broadway’s Marriott Marquis Theatre. You can get tickets to the L.A. run here. Check out the site for the Broadway run here. Alison Janney heads the cast in the role played on film by Lily Tomlin.

Parton has always had a flair for the theatrical, so it’s not at all surprising she’s finally made her way to musical theater. And reports from rehearsals in L.A. are that Parton is so enthused about the project she shows up early and stays late whenever she can.

But rehearsing a Broadway show must be difficult when you’re taking your own show on the road.

Sadly, the crowd at the 8,500-seat Greek was not at capacity. Reports are that it was around 50 percent – a disappointing turnout for a living legend – but that was a wildly enthusiastic 50 percent, a fact Parton acknowledged when she said there may have been more people at the L.A. shows a few nights previous, but they weren’t as loud, as welcoming or as attractive.

Even before much of the crowd had taken its seats, indeed before the clock had even struck 8, Parton was rarin’ to go with “Two Doors Down,” which led directly into one of her rowdy pop-honky tonkers, “Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ Like That?”

In between songs, while courteously taking flowers from fans and chatting with some kids in the audience (who know her as godmother to Miley Cyrus aka Hannah Montana), Parton showed off her glam high heels to the front few rows and, as a result of her short, spangly gold skirt, revealed more than she wanted. “Ohhh,” she squealed. “I think I just showed him the box office!”

Whether singing one of her classics (“Jolene”) or covering someone else’s (John Denver’s revised “Thank God I’m a Country Girl”), Parton is an extraordinary performer with boundless energy. I wasn’t always convinced the vocals were entirely live, but a girl does what she needs to do, and the Teleprompters on each side of the stage ensured there would be no lyrical gaffs.

From the spirited new album she performed a cover of Fine Young Cannibals’ “Drives Me Crazy” (complete with hoedown section) and the title track, which features the lyric: “I might look artificial but where it counts I’m real.”

Playing the dulcimer she sang “Shattered Image,” then accompanied herself on the autoharp for a touching version of “Coat of Many Colors.” Then she picked up the penny whistle for the Celtic-tinged “Only Dreamin’.” Act 1 ended in blaze of gospel glory with “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” bookending a mega-medley of gospel tunes.

Act 2 brought a sassy red dress and some of the most impressive showmanship I’ve seen on a stage. After a rousing “Baby I’m Burning,” Parton tore through two songs from the new album – the inspirational and funny “Better Get to Livin'” complete with video starring Amy Sedaris and the forgettable but fun “Shinola” – and then got down to some serious vocals.

Surrounded by the seven male members of her band, she sang an a cappella version of “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” and the already Dolly-crazy audience went ballistic. She stayed on the a cappella track with her two female backup singers for a chilling, thrilling “Little Sparrow” that made you long for an entire Parton concert with no band at all.

Then came the hit parade: “Here You Come Again,” “Islands in the Stream” (with Richard Dennison), “9 to 5” (and no mention of the Broadway show) and, of course, “I Will Always Love You.”

Because of time restrictions at the Greek (city noise ordinances or some such), Parton trimmed the piano version of “The Grass Is Blue” she usually does, but she did end with her fiery new song “Jesus and Gravity.”

At one point early in the show, as the sun was setting, the sky turned a soft shade of pink over the stage as if to underscore the point that one of the best places in the universe is in the audience for a Dolly Parton show.

Here’s a pirated video from Parton’s European tour last month of “Little Sparrow.” The sound’s not perfect, but you’ll get the idea.