Through Sun 4/29
Holiday dinners should come with trigger warnings, at least according to Stephen Karam’s The Humans, the latest in the Broadway Series currently at Playhouse Square. In an intense, well-crafted (and compressed) drama centered on a Thanksgiving family reunion, the Blake family goes from “Happy to see you” to “What has happened to us? What have we done?” This Broadway Series play moves quickly from laughter to tedium to terror. It dominated the 2016 Tony Awards, winning best play for author Stephen Karam, as well as Tonys for direction (Joe Mantello), scenic design (David Zinn), costumes (Sarah Laux) and sound (Fritz Patton).
The stage is dominated by a see-into two-story apartment which fills the Connor Palace stage; both levels show action (often at the same time) and dialogue (ditto). In short, it mimics the multi-generational chaos the family gathering in it will soon contain. There’s only one (barred) window at the top level of this basement-including dwelling, a factor which we learn makes both cell reception and sunlight precious and rare commodities.
We have working-class parents Erik (Richard Thomas) and Deirdre (Pamela Reed) who have traveled from Scranton, along with Erik’s mother Momo (Lauren Klein), to celebrate Thanksgiving in Manhattan’s Chinatown with their college-educated (and as a result, in debt) daughters. Brigid (Daisy Eagan) and her live-in boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega) host the event serving a simple dinner on paper plates. Paper cups are filled throughout with plenty of booze. Lawyer Aimee (Therese Plaehn), the Blake’s other daughter, has come in from Philly.
From the first scene, loud bangs startle everyone. Is it a poltergeist, haunting the space? No, it’s only the Chinese neighbor lady who lives above. The thumps set the tone, however, for the unsettling events to come (mechanical noises, light failures, etc.). As the guests settle in, friendly family banter (with an edge) evokes laughs; as the story moves along, the humor becomes more wry than riotous.
As in many well-structured dramas, everyone has a personal trauma to reveal before the day is over. Not everything seems logical. For example, why didn’t the kids go to the parents’ house in Scranton? Surely they were better set up to entertain than the just-moved-in couple? But the obvious dramatic purpose seems to have been so the Catholic parents could show their disapproval that their child was “living in sin.” As we soon learn, both daughters have rebelled against the conventions their parents embrace.
The Blakes’ care of Momo borders on the saintly. Klein, as the demented old woman, touchingly illuminates old age consumed by Alzheimer’s. She’s confined to a wheelchair, and spends her time either mumbling, shouting or sleeping. The Blakes show what heroic efforts it takes to tend her with patience.
Richard Thomas (yes, John-Boy has grown up!) persuasively and gradually exposes Erik as both more and less than his daughters think he is. The terrors he recounts as nightmares manifest their reality as the story moves along and darkness invades the apartment in both literal and figurative senses. Reed, as his long-suffering wife (aren’t all wives in all plays long-suffering?), brilliantly shows physical vulnerability (bad knees) and fortitude every time she navigates the circular staircase between apartment levels and or takes Erik’s mother to the toilet.
As a Thanksgiving hostess, Eagan reveals Brigid as both insecure and defensive. As her lover Richard, Vega ably portrays a man too good to be true as he cooks, worries over arrangements and acts super-polite. Oh, why not? We learn later that he’s a trust-fund baby (once he reaches 40, that is — he’s only 38 now). Plaehn, as Brigid’s heart-broken sister Aimee, makes us see her heartbreak at being dumped.
So nobody is happy, but yet we are eventually drawn to agree with Oscar Wilde that “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.” That seems true, even for the scrappy Blake family.
BOTTOM LINE: Yes, it’s a “modern” family drama, more in the tradition of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County than, say, the George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart You Can’t Take It With You. The horror that lingered on the faces of those exiting the theater and the silence as they marched out suggested that of the condemned. That, I suppose, is what theater is all about; it does expand our knowledge about current human experience, whether we like it or not.