While watching Stephen Karam’s 2015 play, “The Humans,” now playing at Seattle Repertory Theatre, I kept reminding myself that it won a Tony Award, and I kept asking myself, “Why?
Was it supposed to be an “aha” moment, or an epiphany? Or did someone hack the Tony-voting data?
I didn’t hate it; I didn’t love it. Yes, it’s depressing and it has no narrative, but that’s not its main problem. Its denouement is that it has no denouement.
It’s as if someone said, “We need a play about the neurotic middle class,” and Karam started writing. He took a tired theatrical vehicle and put his own slice-of-life spin on it and added humor.
The blessing? It only lasted 95 minutes or so. For this critic, it was much ado about nothing — a family prattling on about this and that on Thanksgiving.
New York critics embraced it as if it were the Second Coming. The Tony squad wants the winning play to appeal to the rest of country, and obviously thought this play would appeal to a larger audience. Dania Gurira’s drama, “Eclipsed,” was one of Tony nominees in 2016. It received stellar reviews and was Broadway’s first play with an all-black female cast and creative team. I suspect some politics here. The Tony power-brokers might have calculated that it wouldn’t draw big crowds like “The Humans.” Mind you, this is merely my hypothesis.
Meanwhile, Karam is being compared to Anton Chekhov. As one Chekhov devotee put it, “The same nice people; the same utter futility.” This gave rise to Stanislavsky’s notion of subtext, the idea that thought is not expressed in speeches, but in pauses or between the lines. Characters feel and think things they don’t express in the lines they speak.
In that case, “The Humans” hit the motherlode. Thanksgiving dinners are infamous for bringing out the best and the worst of people. Multiple generations come together to give thanks. And after a few drinks, taboo subjects emerge — religion, politics, money, sexual preferences, failure, envy, bad decisions, occupations, etc. One remark leads to another, and the result can turn into a knock-down, drag-out, gloves-off war that no one wins. Karam didn’t go for the gold. “The Humans” doesn’t do that.
Erik and Deidre Blake, a working-class, Irish-American couple in their early sixties, are coming to the Big Apple from Scranton, Pennsylvania, to spend Thanksgiving with their daughters, Aimee and Brigid, and Brigid’s boyfriend, Richard. And they’re bringing Erik’s mother, affectionately called “Momo.” She suffers from terminal
dementia, and has good days and bad days.
Brigid and Richard are hosting, having just moved into a two-level apartment in a prewar building in New York’s Chinatown neighborhood. The two floors are connected by a circular staircase. The lower level has no windows. The top floor has one. But the view overlooks an alley, as Deidre remarks, “full of cigarette butts.” An NYC apartment with only a view of an alley full of cigarette butts and a noisy
upstairs neighbor — no surprise in Manhattan.
And of course, their furniture hasn’t been delivered yet. (The production saved a bundle with that.) David Zinn won a Tony Award for his Spartan-esque set design. It looks like an overgrown version of a doll house that needs furnishing. There’s a table, surrounded by mismatched chairs. Oh, there’s a couch on each floor, looking rather isolated. And inexplicably, two doors on each floor leading outside.
The Blake family isn’t particularly likeable, but they’re not hateful either. On their behalf, they don’t have much to be thankful about this year. Each of them is suffering, trying to come to terms with some sort of loss, except for Momo, the grandmother. She’s already lost her memory. They do have a couple of charming family rituals. One involves smashing a peppermint pig, and the other is an acapella rendition of beloved Irish tune.
The Blake’s oldest daughter, Aimee, a lesbian, lost both her job as a lawyer and her partner because of a chronic bowel condition, ulcerative colitis. She’s still coming to terms with these losses, and uses sarcasm as a means to cope — to hide her tears. Her interfering, outspoken mother, Deidre, has come bearing food and supplies galore, including a statue of Mother Mary for Brigid, who doesn’t want it in her home. And Deidre keeps sending texts to Aimee about lesbians who commit suicide.
Bridget, the youngest daughter, a wannabe music composer, works two jobs as a bartender to pay off her college loans. FYI; She resents her mother’s interference.
Her father Erik has a bad back and of course he’s concerned about money. He lost his 28-year job — sorry, we can’t tell you why, it’s a spoiler. So he and Deidre are selling their house. Deidre still works, but now her bosses are younger than her daughters. They’re struggling financially.
“Dontcha think it should cost less to be alive?” laments Erik.
Brigid’s boyfriend, Richard, a trust-fund baby, is a bit older than she is, but a pleasant fellow who goes out of the way to please his future in-laws. After years of therapy, he fancies himself as an armchair psychologist.
There was some excitement. One of the women thought she saw a rat and screamed. It was a giant cockroach, one of the trillions that inhabit NYC.
There’s a lively conversation about the right time to install a septic tank. And repeated warnings about the odors that will emit from the bathroom. I wanted to rush out and buy a bottle of Poo-Pourri for them. And of course, at one point, someone runs out of toilet paper and yoo-hoos for a roll.
Momo (Grandma) is the most exciting character, she mumbles incoherently, miraculously remembers lyrics to an Irish tune, and throws a screaming, hissy fit for no reason at all. But Momo is the one thing that holds them together, who brings out the family’s compassion and unconditional love.
Directed by Joe Mantello, the company does a fine job portraying a dysfunctional family. They work well as an ensemble, and the talented Mantello keeps them busy. The cast features Richard Thomas as Erik, Pamela Reed as Deirdre, Daisy Eagan as Brigid, Lauren Klein as Momo (She originated the role on Broadway), Therese Plaehn as Aimee, and Luis Vega as Richard. Since Seattle is the first stop on the play’s national tour, the production will keep evolving.
As a young playwright, Karem shows great promise. Too bad he didn’t wait a couple of years to pen his play — after Trump was elected and the middle class was truly reeling from uncertainty and loss. Karam didn’t realize that his 2015 dramedy is more of a prelude.
As usual, I pondered this play. I sympathize with this family. They are struggling, but their plight is not the stuff of tragedy. Erik has accepted responsibility for his actions that lead to his job loss. Aimee’s despair has heartbreaking implications, but she’s intelligent enough to pull her life together. Brigid may not be the next Mozart, but she has her music, and that can be healing. Deidre is stubborn, but perhaps that is how she copes. And Richard’s good nature offers a glimpse of the sun on cloudy days. The Blake clan will survive.
In the real world, we are facing an apocalypse, thanks to our dear leader and his political desperados. I see the children with cancer and terminal conditions who find a way to smile. I see their parents grasping for a shred of hope. I see people overcoming unspeakable traumas, and heinous acts of hatred and bigotry. The elderly are being tossed aside like old shoes.
Refugees who have lost everything are being denied entry to a country that once prided itself as a melting pot.
However, unlike many critics, I liked the ending of “The Humans.” Not because it was over, but it finally had some meaning. In that moment, it was what wasn’t spoken in 95 minutes that was meaningful.“The Humans” runs through Dec. 17 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; tickets start at $17. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 206-443-2222 or go to seattlerep.org. Running time is approximately 95 minutes with no intermission