Sometimes drama chronicles the grand passions of grand people unfolding in palaces far away. Oedipus unwittingly kills his own father and sleeps with his mother, and everybody pays for it. Hamlet willfully causes the death of nearly every member of the royal court of Denmark. George and Martha consider excoriating each other in front of the neighbors to be a good evening of fun.
But sometimes the best drama allows us to watch real people just living their lives the best they can. That’s what I thought about last night as I watched Stephen Karam’s Tony-award winning play, The Humans. I also marveled at how wonderful it can be when you can walk into a play without the having least idea of what you are about to see. How theatre can surprise you!
The only descriptor I had at hand was that The Humans was a “family drama.” I’ll admit I arrived at the intimate Helen Hayes Theatre poised to apply the tropes of that timeworn genre to what I was watching. Old family home where everyone gathers? Check! Dysfunctional characters who can’t communicate? Check! Big dark secret that ruins everyone’s life? Check! There is a big secret, but it doesn’t come until ten minutes before the end, and by that time you realize that families are too complicated to come undone that simply; it’s the smaller hurts that leave us frayed at the edges.
Don’t expect too many clichés here. The six members of the Blake family remind us that all families are comprised of complex individuals who bring the ups and downs of their own lives to the dinner table. We constant weigh our own existence against the precious traditions and experiences of childhood, as well as the time some of us took off from thinking only of ourselves in order to raise our children and send them off with our best wishes for them. A halcyon event like Thanksgiving dinner can turn into a crucible for all the hurts and frustrations we feel, but it can be the balm that heals as well. The great thing about being a family is that we can inflict our hurt on others without our ties coming completely untethered. Too many tiny details bind us together, for good or ill, to sever that connection.
That’s what happens over 95 minutes in The Humans. The members of the Blake family gather at the new apartment of younger daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard Saad (Arian Moayed) to celebrate Thanksgiving. Brigid is excited to have scored a duplex in New York’s Chinatown, even if the first floor is in the basement, right next to the laundry room and the trash compactor. David Zinn’s amazing set, ably supported by Justin Townsend’s lights, brings to full life a dwelling filled with enough flaws to dismay the most tolerant of parents: the upstairs has one broken window and another that looks out on a brick wall (the downstairs has no windows), the spiral staircase is hostile to parents with arthritis or a bad back, (never mind Grandma in a wheelchair), and the electrical system is less than adequate. The neighbors are noisy as they go about their business doing laundry and operating the trash compactor (but since Chinese people evidently do not observe Thanksgiving, an ever optimistic Brigid forgives the noise, at least for a while).
To make matters worse, the moving vans are late, and the couple must make do with minimal furniture and paper plates. But at the start of the play, Brigid’s excitement at moving from mere daughter to hostess is enough to sustain the clan as they gather for a holiday filled with Blake family traditions. And for a while, the songs and toasts serve to counteract the individual hurts and disappointments each of the characters has experienced, but as new hurts are inflicted and fresh wounds are revealed, the question becomes whether or not these traditions are enough to sustain this family through its darkest moments.
The work of director Joe Mantello and his cast is inspired, and the script skillfully reveals the depths of humanity within trivial moments. Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell, both Tony-winners for this play, earn that honor a thousand-fold as parents Eric and Dierdre. I think we all acknowledge that parenting never stops and that this is, by turns, both gratifies and annoys adult children. Yet, as the evening progresses, and more and more information is layered on, we are also reminded how parents struggle to balance their fierce concern for their children with their own need to be fulfilled, both as partners and as individuals, and how casually cruel children can be in forgetting that.
Birney and Houdyshell are the center of this play, even if they won supporting actor awards (given that this is, to all intents and purposes, an ensemble piece), but every actor creates a fully realized character. In addition to Steele (so memorable for me as Alan Cummings’ daughter in The Good Wife and wonderful here) and Moayed, who as Rich perfectly conveys a man’s dual desire to both establish the credentials for being a worthy love interest to prospective in-laws and to be perfectly honest about his own flawed self, there is Cassie Beck as older daughter Aimee, whose unspooling life has driven her directly to the bathroom (as it does so many of us) and who eventually reveals so much sad news that we almost – but not quite – want her to stop! Even “Momo,” Erik’s mother who is in the last stages of dementia, so poignantly portrayed by Lauren Klein, becomes here a person we know a great deal about, largely due to the family’s reminiscences of her in better times, and from the e-mail that Momo sent to her granddaughters four years earlier when she realized she didn’t have many lucid moments left, the reading of which has become the newest Blake Thanksgiving tradition (and which, I think, left few dry eyes in the house.)
If all of this sounds grim, rest assured that the evening is also, by turns, riotously funny. Houdyshell especially can take a line and make you laugh out loud and then feel the burn of her frustration. The family finds lots to laugh at and enjoy, often taking solace in an old prayer or a memory of a happy time when present moments demand it. Watching Birney try to cling to every positive moment in the evening (for reasons that don’t become clear until the end) and to exert, with increasing difficulty, his position as loving husband, son and father, was revelatory.
This merging of happy moments with other, darker ones, contributes to a slow build of tension throughout the play. Old resentments emerge and new ones create themselves as people chatter amiably in the basement dining room while a family member suffers alone upstairs, as we see Erik grip his mother’s hand wondering if there will ever be another “good day” before the end, and as the apartment itself seems to implode in cockroach infestations, sudden loud bangs and faulty circuit breakers. Things become more unsettling as characters discuss their dreams, which have that quality of vague horror we have all experienced. At one point, Rich, who revels in his geekiness, talks about an alien world where all the monsters have nightmares about human beings. We are almost encouraged to contemplate how monstrous one of these people may become so that throughout we wait for something terrible to happen – for Mary Tyrone to appear in the full throes of morphine addiction or for Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski’s sanity-blowing final confrontation.
That The Humans operates on a different level, a more (forgive me) human – meaning real – level than classic family dramas like Long Day’s Journey into Night or A Streetcar Named Desire – does not lessen the impact the Blake family has on us. The final moments of the play depict one character alone in the dark, and as the apartment door closes on that person for the last time, the audience found it hard to get up and go, leaving the Blake family behind. We wanted to be assured that they would be okay. We had taken them to our hearts as we would do any new friend.
Great drama will do that to you.