Stephen Karam captures the drudging, delightful, tedious adventure of being a person like few playwrights can. His funny, fecund play The Humans, a nationally touring production running at Seattle Rep through Dec. 17, reaches into the infuriating gift that is being a family.
The Humans takes place in real time, on a Thanksgiving night as the Blake family—dad Erik, mom Deirdre, older sister Aimee, younger sister Brigid and Erik’s mother Fiona, aka Momo—gathers together in the Chinatown apartment Brigid and her boyfriend, Richard, have just moved into. The elder generation has come up to New York from Scranton, Penn.; Aimee is in from Philly.
The apartment is nearly bare—their moving truck is stuck somewhere in Queens—but Brigid gushes with the enthusiasm only a New Yorker could have for a dingy basement apartment. The two(!) floors connect via spiral staircase, and everything is painted that flat white that apartment supers buy in bulk (scenic design by David Zinn). “It’s an interior courtyard!” Brigid insists, of the airshaft/ashtray her one window faces.
The dollhouse-like cross-section of the apartment lets us see everyone at once, whether they’re upstairs or down, deep in conversation or desperately seeking silence. They’re all a part of one another’s story, no matter how far apart they get. Occasional thumps and thuds crash above their heads; who knows what the upstairs neighbor is doing.
The reality of the crashing is irrelevant, the delicious creeping dread it creates, the sense that your life is never entirely in your control, helped earn the New York productions of The Humans (it went from off-Broadway to Broadway with lighting speed) the critical moniker of, in essence, “best play of 2016.” That imprimatur, along with the involvement of incomparable Broadway director Joe Mantello and fast-rising star playwright Karam, launched the play on a national tour, an honor seldom extended to straight plays.
The Humans is a truly great play. This production is really very good. But it’s not great, which makes it an interesting case study in the precarious balance that can so easily tip an intimate play into boring territory. That’s the danger with “quiet” plays; without a dazzling cast and a Mousetrap-complex array of perfectly arranged elements, they can get stuck pre-lift-off.
Over the course of the evening, Karam artfully, tenderly draws the gap between generations, between urbanites and suburbanites, giving weight and consideration to how each Blake prioritizes ambition, tradition, emotion, practicality. Erik worries about flood zones, Deirdre unsubtly brings up marriage. There’s Brigid’s professional frustration and Aimee’s painful health and relationship problems. Richard’s crack that his family functions are sponsored by Klonopin. The religion of god vs. the religion of chard. The shifting lines of morality. The misguided ways we care for one another. Money.
“Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?” Erik jokes, listing out his endless bills—mortgage, internet, broken dishwasher.
“You don’t have to text her every time a lesbian kills herself,” Brigid cracks, after Deirdre has told Aimee an anecdote on that topic.
Karam’s language is exquisitely precise in its everydayness. There’s nothing intentionally heightened or theatrical about it, and that is both Karam’s strength and The Humans’ Achilles heel. It’s not a weakness in the play, not at all, but it does make it excruciatingly difficult to do well. Actors can often cloak themselves in stylized language; Karam’s words leave them nowhere to hide. It’s vulnerable and exposed, and while these are all very talented performers, the moment you see anyone acting the illusion is ruined.
Therese Plaehn, as Aimee, brings a wry honesty to Aimee, a lawyer struggling with ulcerative colitis and the dissolution of a longtime relationship. Richard Thomas, who plays Erik, doesn’t quite pass as a blue-collar sports fan, though his gruff love for his family outweighs any affectation. As Deirdre, Pamela Reed is pleasant but does the most “acting” of the bunch, and Daisy Eagan, while charming, is miscast as Brigid, in part because she reads as the same age as Richard. That’s not at all a dig and may seem like an insignificant detail, but it fundamentally changes the nature of their relationship. When Erik says, “Are you guys even in the same generation?” it takes a while to sort out which one is supposed to be older. It also affects the perception of family dynamics, and the way Brigid, the baby, fits in with her tribe. Like it or not, a 26-year-old is usually forgiven a lot more nonsense than a 35-year-old.
None of this undercuts Karam’s hope and empathy for everyone on stage. Every character has their fears and tragedies, and there’s no line drawn between the things we’re “allowed” to be upset about. Momo got out of the New York tenements and her granddaughter has come right back to struggle as a composer. Deirdre and Erik struggle with Momo’s dementia (Lauren Klein turns in an extraordinary performance as Momo). Erik and Aimee narrowly escaped being killed in the 9/11 attacks.
“What’s crazy is how you still mess up,” says Erik, after telling Richard (Luis Vega) that 9/11 story, as though embarrassed that his brush with death didn’t fortify his decision-making for a lifetime, that fucking up after surviving something like that is a moral failing.
Even Erik’s confession to his daughters, late in the play, is a personal tragedy of a profoundly ordinary nature, and underscores just how little it takes to send the world crashing down around you. One bad choice, one unlucky diagnosis, these are the thumps and bumps, the busted bulbs that plunge you suddenly into darkness. Sometimes, no matter how unlikely it feels, it’s family that can keep the light on.
The Humans runs through Dec. 17.