Reviewed by Amanda Callas
The hit world premiere play The Human Comedy is back, by popular demand, at the award-winning Actors Co-op in Hollywood. This is the poignant story of an adolescent boy growing up without a father in wartime, small town California in the 1940s, with an extraordinary, virtuoso performance by young lead actor Brendan Shannon. Writer-director Thom Babbes adapted this material for the stage with special arrangement by Warner Bros., based on the novel and screenplay by acclaimed, classic California writer William Saroyan.
Like writer William Saroyan himself, the main character of The Human Comedy, Homer, has lost his father and is working in a telegram office as a boy. Over the course of the play, Homer loses his lucky sports streak at school, he delivers messages to families that their sons have died, and he encounters victims of prostitution and human trafficking. In a sudden and horrible blow, he loses more people close to him. Homer experiences soul-crushing loneliness and loss, as well as moments of inspiring human connection and hope. The Human Comedy is a big-hearted story about growing up and finding community and discovering deep faith in hard times.
William Saroyan was a Pulitzer and Academy Award winning writer, born in an Armenian-American immigrant family in Fresno in 1908. Tragically losing his father when he was only three years old, he spent some of his childhood in an orphanage. Saroyan often wrote fictional stories with an autobiographical element, describing his life among the immigrant communities and agricultural workers of California's Central Valley, and struggling with crushing poverty in the Great Depression.
Saroyan wrote a mammoth, four hours long screenplay of The Human Comedy that he was going to direct, but when he refused to shorten it, he was fired from the project by MGM. Instead he wrote a bestselling novel that was a sprawling series of short story like vignettes. It is much simpler to do ensemble-driven, philosophical and spiritual storytelling on paper than on stage or on the screen, and watching this play, it is so ambitious that it doing it strains what you can do in a visual medium. It is not always perfectly even, but the stories feel truthful and meaningful, and there are some beautiful, profoundly moving moments to be found here. I particularly loved a striking ensemble scene of soldiers all in khakis heading off to war, singing first a bawdy song, then a stirring, simple hymn.
Powerhouse actress, producer, and radio and TV veteran Tricia Cruz gives a star turn as Mrs. Saroyan, a kindly Latina mother who receives notice that her son has died fighting in World War II. Tricia Cruz is a remarkable talent across multiple media. There was not a dry eye in the house after her haunting performance.
Actor, singer, and musician Mitchell Lam Hau plays both a rich teacher's pet taunting Homer at school and Homer's beloved older brother serving in the war, and he is such a talented, unbelievably versatile actor that I literally didn't recognize him from one role to the next.
Distinguished theater actor Bruce Ladd delivers an engrossing, superb performance of elderly telegram operator Mr. Grogan, suffering from a chronic illness and slowly drinking himself to death. He captures the whimsy, the light heartedness, the sweetness, and the curse of this character with immense depth and perceptiveness. Bruce Ladd's brilliant scenes with actor Brendan Shannon as Homer are the real heart of the play, and every one works like a charm.
This production should be applauded for showcasing younger actors and children, who are often some of the most gifted and compelling actors we have. Young award-winner Brendan Shannon gives a virtuoso performance as lead Homer. Brendan Shannon is gangly, affecting, and profoundly honest, never wavering from a distinctive simplicity and truthfulness in every scene. He is an actor of immense likability and timeless, good-hearted charisma, like a young Jimmy Stewart, but not afraid of some real darkness, either. His work is truly impressive.
The Actors Co-op has a strong creative team, with consistently inventive and rich production values. I loved The Actors Co-op's stunning production of the wonderfully thoughtful, intelligent drama Tornado by Chris Cragin-Day back in April.
Here in The Human Comedy, Cooper Babbes (Disney, Cartoon Network) especially shines as a genius music designer, working with his father, writer-director Thom Babbes, to create a composition that fits this production like a glove. Cooper Babbes worked from recorded stage sequences on an iPhone to create an Aaron Copland like score that accompanies the stage movement precisely and exquisitely. His musical work here is sublime, evocative, stirring, poignantly weaving together the scenes in a way even the words cannot. I was constantly struck by the astonishing beauty of the music.
Audiences loved this world premiere historical play, and The Human Comedy is back at Actors Co-op by popular demand through November 5th.
The Human Comedy runs September 30 - November 5, 2023. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 2:30 pm. Running time: two and a half hours, one intermission. Tickets: Adults $35. Seniors (60+) $30. Students w/ID and SAG-AFTRA & WGA union members $25. Use promo code TELE20 for the first two weeks. Group rates available. Free lot parking. Tickets/Info: www.ActorsCo-op.org or (323) 462-8460. David Schall Theatre, 1760 N. Gower St., on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, Hollywood CA 90028.