The Humans—good title. Perfect, in fact, for this cunning new play by Stephen Karam, inasmuch as his six characters are nothing if not. They gather for 90 minutes to do the most human things: Joke. Eat. Lie. Pray. Ail. Hope. Worry. Bicker. Nap. Monopolize the bathroom. Complain about the neighbors. Try to get a handle on their lives and fail. Their humanity trumps even the demands of conventional narrative; privileging behavior over drama, Karam waits until the last minute to deliver the sensational piece of information with which most other playwrights would start.
It’s Thanksgiving Day. Erik and Deirdre Blake are in Manhattan, along with grown daughter Aimee and Erik’s mom, Fiona. They’ve come all the way from Scranton, Pennsylvania, to celebrate the holiday at the Chinatown apartment their younger daughter, Brigid, shares with her significant other, Richard. A would-be musician currently serving drinks for a living, Brigid is sure she lucked out with her new place—a duplex hellhole whose barred upper-floor window looks out on what she likes to call an “interior courtyard” while the bottom floor sits bunker-deep and windowless underground. (I’m all too familiar with the setup, my two sons having occupied similar downtown digs at one time or another. Scenic designer David Ferguson gets the idiom exactly right.) Every so often there’s a crash from the apartment above, as if an airplane had hit the building.
Like any good parents, Mom and Dad are encouraging but wary. Erik keeps reminding Brigid that Chinatown is not only crime ridden but situated on a flood plain, leaving her vulnerable in the event of, I don’t know, the apocalypse. He brings a similar sense of alarm to his appraisal of Richard, an aging grad student with a genial manner but the sort of past in which the word recovery figures big. A devout Catholic, Deirdre just wants to see the couple married. She’s brought a little statue of the Virgin as a housewarming gift.
Aimee, meanwhile, has her own mishegos. More than her share of it, actually. A mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer crucially lacking the instinct for blood, she’s lost her lesbian lover while gaining an advanced case of colitis. Grandma Fiona—aka Momo—is almost completely lost to dementia. We won’t be seeing her next Thanksgiving.
The situation is almost comical in its Job-like litany of reversals, real and anticipated. And it’ll get worse still when, as I say, that missing bit of information comes to light. A quiet, perceptive maker of parables, Karam has carefully tailored the Blakes to embody a particular kind of 21st-century American awfulness. Everything is too hard. The precipice is too close. The demands are too great. What we took to be a life spent in the bosom of a generous network of institutions has been revealed as a predatory hoax. Our nest eggs are gone. Our health insurance isn’t meant to protect us. Education is a game of bait and switch. The religious establishment has come to symbolize violation and betrayal. Nine-11 happened, leaving us unsure of our safety even on our own ground. And real estate—well, real estate is ridiculous.
Last week I wrote about the great production of Iphigenia in Aulis running now at Court Theatre and tried to make the point that the tragedy of that play is heightened by the audience’s awareness of how everything will turn out. Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and the rest keep doing their best to climb out of a hole from which we know there’s no exit. Something similar pertains here, on a pathetically reduced scale. Aimee isn’t Iphigenia; she’s just a regular soul who’s literally lost the stomach for her profession. Brigid isn’t Helen of Troy but a work in progress, trying to get her footing in an artistic discipline where prodigies abound. They and their elders are unforgivably middle-class. Average. Human. They haven’t got a chance.
Director PJ Paparelli brings all that out nicely in his staging for American Theater Company. The conceit is that we’re watching the Blakes’ Thanksgiving dinner unfold in real time, from Costco crudite platter to the annual family ritual of handing around a pink peppermint pig to be hammered at by the guests while they count their blessings. (This is apparently a real thing.) The two-tiered set makes for easy eavesdropping and, infinitely more important, passages of unguarded pensiveness. Oddly, some of the best moments in the show occur during those passages. Hannah Dworkin is triumphantly annoying as a Deirdre lacking boundaries, but also heartbreaking when she’s ensconced in a cushy chair in half-light, silent and alone. Likewise, I felt transfixed at times, watching Keith Kupferer’s Erik accrue depths simply by sitting on a couch and watching his family from a slight distance.
Jean Moran makes fine work of what’s left of Momo; Sadieh Rifai gives Aimee a soft, smiling melancholy, while Kelly O’Sullivan summons a necessary sharpness as Brigid, and Rifai and O’Sullivan together create an utterly convincing sisterly dynamic. I thought Richard might be funnier if Lance Baker did more to emphasize his post-therapeutic narcissism, but Baker seems to have gone for the human in him instead.