by Tulis McCall
In the beautifully executed production of The Humans by Stephen Karam, now at Rounabout’s Pels Theatre, the characters are so transparent that you might feel that you are eavesdropping. So easily do these fine actors inhabit their characters that a person could not be blamed were she to swan out of her seat and up onto the stage so join everyone in Thanksgiving dinner. Get the skinny on these folks who are intriguing from first sight.
The skinny, it turns out, would be on the depressing side. The Blake Family are people living lives that revolve around never quite succeeding. Erik (Reed Birney) has been working at the same private school for decades as an Equipment Manager. Picking up after other people’s kids got him free tuition for his girls – so that’s something. His wife Deidre (Jayne Houdyshell) has been an office manager at the same place for 40 years. Their daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) is a musician loaded with student debt and working as a bartender. Their other daughter Aimee (Cassie Beck) is a laywer working in Philadelphia with problems of the physical, emotional and employment sort. Erik’s mother Momo (Lauren Klein) has drifted into dementia and needs full time care. The only person with hope on the horizon is Rich (Arian Moayed) who is a student and soon will be, well, rich because of an inheritance due in two years. This fact, rather than being hopeful is a slight to Brigid’s family of which they do not speak.
Today is Thanksgiving and everyone has come from Pennsylvania (Erik et al live in Scranton) driving through the snow to get to the city. It is a housewarming of sorts for Brigid and Rich who have just moved into a duplex that is remarkably sad as a sort of extra character. Like her parents, Brigid will do everything she can to tap dance her way through a perfect performance that makes this apartment seem spectacular. Look at the window that has bars on it and faces an alley. At least it IS a window, and those do not come cheap in New York. Her family acknowledges her spirit but sees the apartment (a brilliant set by David Zinn) for what it is: tiny and dark and too far away from Scranton.
The evening progresses with the regular: singing, eavesdropping, mild digs, innocent questions that are met with obfuscation. Blake family traditions. Peppermint pigs and statues of the Virgin Mary. Deidre no filters. She speaks for others as if they were not there – and none of it is the good stuff. And in case no one hears her she will follow it up with texts bout death, chaos, and the uncertainty of life in general. Erik gives a family toast where he warns them that what they have is all that is important. And PS all that is important will go away eventually. The daughters dodge the family bullets and Rich is a bystander. When the men are left alone Erik let’s his hair down for a minute. Dontcha think it should cost less to be alive? he says. And we know there is trouble in River City. Actually we knew it early on, but this confirms the fact.
Slowly and certainly the cracks in the walls of this family appear. They are not dramatic in the sense of DRAMA. They are simply part of the tapestry that holds this family together. The blue elephants in the room start multiplying like the pink ones in the movie Dumbo. Fear of everything: loss of money, health, love. These people are skittish to the nth degree, and when they are around each other, all the frayed edges appear. Joe Montello’s direction keeps the action flowing both upstairs and down. Our eyes move where we are guided to look, and we often end up surprised at what we missed in the other room.
Just about like every family event I have been to. I never lose sight of what the other people are up to in locations where I am not. It is easy to attend one of these events and never actually arrive.
Watching The Humans I was often reminded of the play August Osage County by Tracy Letts that also told the story of a family whose dysfunction spanned generations and three stories in a family home. Mr. Karam seems to have taken a page out of that excellent play’s format – and he has made it all his own.
In the end, the Blake Family sadness explodes in a moment that Laura Klein delivers with precision and no mercy. In the last overly drawn out moments the story collapses like a soufflé. There is only so much pretending these folks can do. But underneath it you know that they are all doing their best to sustain and carry on. There is an absurd thread of hope that weaves through each of these people, even when they are left alone crying in the dark. We do not judge them, because we are them. Humans all. Something we can often forget, eh?
The HUMANS Written by Stephen Karam; Directed by Joe Mantello
Cast Cassie Beck as Aimee Blake, Reed Birney as Erik Blake, Jayne Houdyshell as Deirdre Blake, Sarah Steele as Brigid Blake, Arian Moayed as Richard and Lauren Klein as Fiona “Momo” Blake
“The Humans” runs through Dec. 27 at the Laura Pels Theater, 111 West 46th Street, Manhattan; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.