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The Humans

The Father

Photo - Joan Marcus

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors


The American family meets the American dream. Actually, the Blakes give the dream a try in Stephen Karam’s The Humans. What they come up with is an electrified vignette of life's uncertainty in shades of humor and fear.

Directed by Joe Mantello, The Humans skips all the obvious opportunities for cheap and phony, going for the humanity of a family whose sense of love and values underscores their struggles. Karam's dialogue is piercing and real with naturalistic give-and-take of emotions. The Blakes are familiar as the next-door neighbors and they bring along their dark Irish pragmatic approach to life, death, illness and money, pointed out by father Erik, who observes, "Dontcha think it should cost less to be alive?"

Eric and his wife Deidre have just driven in from Scranton, Pennsylvania to celebrate Thanksgiving. They are gathered at the no-frills Chinatown apartment shared by their snappy youngest daughter, Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard (Arian Moayed), an amiable 38-year-old grad student from an upscale background with problems of his own.

Reed Birney, excellent as Erik, is burdened trying to make expenses meet, battling depression, illnesses and marital woes. Jayne Houdyshell skillfully shows her strength and sharp humor as Deidre, keeping herself and the family somewhat level even as she accepts her failings. Older daughter, Aimee (Cassie Beck) is preoccupied right now, having recently broken up with her girlfriend and suffering from ulcerative colitis that threatens her job as a lawyer in Philadelphia. Momo (Lauren Klein), Erik's mother, has dementia and is confined to a wheelchair. Keeping Momo a part of their family, despite her incomprehensible muttering and sudden bursts of unexplained fury, is just accepted. Erik says, "This is definitely not one of your better days, Mom...oh man, we, uh...we’ll all be there someday, right?"

The ensemble interacts with smooth ease and flowing wine, bringing up old complaints, sharing gossip from the old neighborhood, constantly pushing to just make the most of the human condition yet just falling short. Approached through Karam's sharp perspective, it's hard not to empathize with the acid quips as well as the display of love and support.

Since Brigid and Richard's furniture has been lost somewhere en route, David Finn's two-level basement apartment is almost bare, with a well-traveled spiral staircase between floors, problematic plumbing and Justin Townsend's hard artificial basement lighting. Dinner is on a folding table with folding chairs, paper plates and plastic cups. Says Deidre as Richard pours her sparkling Asti, "Thank you, Richard. Champagne’ll make the cups feel fancy." As an underscore, strange banging, crashing noises and flickering lights are as inexplicable as life itself.

The Humans opened last fall as the off-Broadway Roundabout production at the Laura Pels Theater and soon moved to the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway. Like Karam's previous Sons of the Prophet, The Humans is a runner-up for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Thanksgiving for the Blake family is not the Norman Rockwell American Dream. It does, however, come close enough to lighten Erik's anguish in the haunting finale, realizing that even if life's absurdities are beyond our control, the family is still there for each other.

The Humans
Helen Hayes Theater
240 -West 44nd Street
Opened: Feb. 18, 2016. Open run.
95 minutes. No intermission
Playwright: Stephen Karam
Directed by Joe Mantello
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors