Humans Anonymous is overstuffed with good will and funny comedy. That's nothing to feel bad about, so don't help Kate Hewlett's excellent play avoid the anonymity of the city and get yourself out to see it; you'll be charmed.
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Since the characters of Humans Anonymous spend so much time sharing their innermost fears with the audience (from foghorns to death, centipedes to not being liked), I'll add one of mine: I'm always afraid that the show I'm attending is going to be horrible, and that I won't be able to find anything positive to say about it. Well, while the sexy but insecure hero, Ellen, has to open the show with a false smile, nodding and holding herself as if she can simultaneously fit in and stand out, I don't need to be false at all: Kate Hewlett's written a wonderful comedy that zips through overtly comic scenes while remaining anchored to a real human connection.
Here, that connection comes via the Internet: Ellen has fallen for her soul mate, SmartyPants17, and at long last, she's going to get to meet him, the man of her dreams. Unfortunately for her, that happens to be a woman, not Lenny, but Jenny, a young, adorably persistent klutz with a penchant for typos. Worse still, Ellen's homophobic, and while she's businesslike enough to grin and bear her way through the date, she's got no interest in seeing the smitten Jenny ever again.
That's where the matchmaker of this comedy enters: Ellen's sly and sagacious employee, Peter (who is also, tellingly, her gay best friend), accidentally glimpses that first date and starts pulling strings to make Ellen happy, whatever it takes. Peter and Jenny become fast friends, and it isn't long before Ellen's fallen for "A" (for Anonymous), a gift-giving secret admirer born of Jenny's heart and Peter's playful scheming.
Here's where the play gets more complicated: Ellen becomes convinced (painting the picture she wants to see, rather than looking for the riddle she needs) that "A" is Arden, an overwhelmingly shy UHB ("You Handsome Brute") who stammers his way from his seat in the audience into our hearts. Arden we can handle, even if his antics are a little thematically distracting, but Hewlett starts interjecting too much of herself when she joins the cast as Gema, Peter's socially awkward sister. None of this stops the play from being funny, but it starts to push the jokes ("Can I come out now?" says Peter; "Didn't you do that once already?" Ellen rejoins). I never saw the hour-long "Best of the Fringe" version when it played in Toronto (2006), but it's not hard to tell when Hewlett is writing for an audience instead of her characters.
To stress again, however, none of this stops Humans Anonymous from being wholly enjoyable. Robin A. Paterson's direction is engaging (directly so when Dustin Olson's amidst the crowd), and with the exception of an unnecessary intermission, the play segues well from scene to scene. All three leads (Esther Barlow, Jennifer Laine Williams, and Philip Graeme) have excellent chemistry, and they each find the nuances of their characters: with Barlow, it's the cracked smile, growing more and more genuine with every gift; with Williams, it's the sense of purpose and general cheeriness; and with Graeme, it's the dry amusement that serves to mask his genuine concern. While Hewlett and Olson both put in admirable performances, the play itself would be better served to keep the focus on the actual story: that would tighten the jokes, the pace, and with those, the show.
Don't be a stranger to Humans Anonymous, go and check it out. We're all a little bit lonely, a little bit insecure: this show's for you.
Theatre 54 @ Shetler Studios (244 West 54th St., 12th Floor)
Performances (through 11/18): Tuesday - Sunday @ 8:00
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Length: 110 minutes w/intermission
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.