Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Humans

In The Humans, Stephen Karam's funny, sad, squirmily accurate play about family dynamics in troubling times, the supernatural is repeatedly implied. The newly rented, ground-floor New York apartment the play is set in--creepy enough as it is in its whitewashed, prewar emptiness--makes all kinds of strange creaks and groans, is subject to frequent and random power outages, and is regularly stomped upon by a never-seen upstairs neighbor who is, even by New York standards, excessively noisy. Family members talk over dinner about the unknown: scary comic book creatures, brushes with death, strange and unsettling dreams. And while the ending of The Humans builds toward a climax befitting the kind of terrifying surprise one expects of a horror flick, the eerie vibe infusing this smart, affecting play ultimately has little, if anything, to do with the otherworldly. People, it turns out--especially the ones you love and trust the most--can burrow into and fuck with your head way better than any ghost can. Especially when they, like you, are preoccupied with the most terrifying of human anxieties: rejection, poverty, sickness, age, death.

Joan Marcus

Even though the Blake family loves their rituals, they break with family tradition for Thanksgiving. Instead of gathering in Scranton, they meet in Manhattan for dinner in the as-yet-unfurnished ground-floor apartment of their tightly-wound younger daughter, Brigid (Sarah Steele), and her amicable boyfriend, Richard (Arian Moayed). All of the Blakes are ill at ease, for what turns out to be a host of intersecting reasons. Brigid is overwhelmed with student loans, endless rejections for grants and awards, and so busy bartending that she has no time to forge a career as a composer. Brigid's older sister, Aimee (Cassie Beck), still reeling from a breakup with her longtime girlfriend, is suffering mightily from ulcerative colitis and has just been taken off the partner track at her law firm. The girls' mother, Dierdre (Jayne Houdyshell), has been working at the same low-paying office job since high school, and now spends much of her free time stress-eating and caring for Momo (Lauren Klein), her wheelchair-bound mother-in-law. Momo, who has full-blown dementia, apparently has good days and bad ones, but this one is particularly bad: at any given time, she's mumbling, dozing, sleeping, or raging incoherently while the dinner party takes place around her. And though he's obviously fretting about something, the family patriarch, Erik (Reed Birney), repeatedly brushes off his family's concerns about his sleeplessness, upsetting dreams, and irritability.

Family-based Thanksgiving throwdowns are their own subgenre, really--there's just so much material to mine when it comes to kin who completely lose their shit and go to war over a perfectly-carved turkey. There's a lot of familiar territory here, too: sniping, Big Reveals, the petty airing of disappointments, way too much booze. But The Humans distinguishes itself in its pacing, affection, and astounding accuracy. The exceptional ensemble, shaped by the reliably deft direction of Joe Mantello, demonstrates the fact that family members are often as supportive and loving of one another as they are cutting and hurtful. The Blakes really do love one another--that's never in doubt. They also all seem to really like Richard who, as the outsider, observes their strengths and weaknesses comparatively objectively, as we do. Much like Aimee--who seems to be the family peacemaker, but who occasionally engages in their well-honed habit of taking genuinely mean jabs at one another--Richard swiftly moves to make peace, deflecting tensions and smoothly changing the subject whenever he detects the spark of a potential disagreement.

There are, of course, many disagreements. The Blake elders are solidly working-class and not as well-educated as their daughters, and this is clearly a point of tension and resentment, as is the fact that the daughters are not church-going or traditional in their approach to life. Dierdre can't understand why Aimee didn't marry her girlfriend, which she is convinced would have helped them stay together; she is similarly irked by the fact that Brigid and Richard are living together but not planning to marry yet. In turn, the daughters openly and sometimes viciously mock Dierdre's habit of forwarding news articles and folksy email messages to them. Erik is openly derisive of any attempt at self-improvement that costs money and isn't chuch-related--psychiatry, medication, organic food. It doesn't help matters that Richard, who is well-educated, erudite, and awaiting a trust fund when he turns 40, alludes to a long stretch of depression that kept him from entering the work force, and is only just starting a career path (in social work: horrors!). The fact that his daughters might need financial support that he is incapable of giving them clearly also riles Erik, but so too does just about everything: Brigid's apartment's potential for flooding or infestation, its desperate need for caulk and good lighting, its proximity to the World Trade Center. This last, it turns out, is the source for some of his lingering anxieties and for upsetting, recurring dreams about a faceless woman.

Looming over the proceedings is Momo, whose constant care is clearly wearing on Erik and Dierdre. No longer truly living and not yet dead, hers is possibly the most challenging role in the piece. Momo is an utterly helpless figure who has rendered her family helpless in turn. She needs constant care and can't be left alone for even a second, and her needs are a constand reminder to Erik and Dierdre that they can't afford to hire someone to help, to put her in a home, to allow them to take even a few minutes to themselves as they near their own old age.

Not everything works perfectly in The Humans. Erik's Big Reveal at the end of the dinner seems a little out of character, and the fallout from it a little tacked on. Then again, the play's lack of forced exposition, or of tidy, neat little endings for all the random characters' predicaments and concerns, makes perfect sense: no one ever resolves all their problems and fixes those of their many family members over the course of a single holiday meal. And in this respect, The Humans is spot on: it reminds us that the anxieties we carry around in our own minds are just as terrifying--and far more real--than the shadowy ghouls and goblins that go bump in the night.

Elizabeth Wollman
Row J, press ticket

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