“Dance more than I did, drink less than I did. Go to church. Be good to everyone you love. I love you more than you’ll ever know.”
I really wanted to like Stephen Karam’s new play The Humans. I was hoping on a second try, with the show now moved to Broadway, that I would get what major critics have seen, that I am missing. I made sure I took a nap and was well rested. Sadly, the play left me with the same feelings, as the first time and lost me at the same places. Thankfully my guest liked the play a whole lot better than I did and explained why I did not. You see, she understood what I would find so tedious, dull, monotonous, repetitive, unrelieved, unvaried, unimaginative and uneventful, in other words boring. Karam’s play deals with how Americans have coped with the tragedy after 9/11. On Thanksgiving where they should be grateful, they are not. There lives, flawed with human failings have eaten away at them, so that they treat this holiday as many of us do, as a feast to dig and claw at one another, until the ghosts that haunt us take over.
The play takes place at the apartment of Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard (Arian Moayed) who are hosting her lower middle class family from Scranton PA for Thanksgiving dinner. By the end all are depressed and “Human’s” stuck in a rut. Only Richard is allowed to be depressed as he has the money to support this emotion. Issues of retirement, health care, Alzheimer’s are at the brink here. Brigid’s father Erik Blake (Reed Birney) has been cheating on his wife for years and the consequences of his last one effect everyone. His wife Deidre (Jayne Houdyshell) eats as a way of coping as she stands by her man and her dementia ridden mother in law Momo (Lauren Klein.) Brigid’s sister Aimee (Cassie Beck) is failing as a lawyer due to health issues and her obsession with her ex-girlfriend. As for Brigid she is desperately trying to make it in New York with out talent, connections or money. Despite their flaws, year after year they will go on or will they?
The cast is superb, with each cast member holding their own. In Birney, we see a man whose flaws have not only ruined him, but those he cares about. He wears his shame on him like a badge of honor so entrenched in his own pain, he misses others. We know he will continue the cycle or kill himself. His weakness shines even in the dark. Houdyshell is the comedy in this tragedy. She will survive, but happiness will always evade her. The most touching moment is when Momo’s letter is read (the words at the top of this review) and we see the person she was before she was robbed of self. The tragedy is these people will not heed the advice.
Director Joe Mantello gets the most out of his cast and his staging is interesting, but I do not know if it is Mr. Karan or Mr. Mantello who keeps this a ghost story of sorts and makes it so confusing in the end. The set by David Zinn is a perfect derelict apartment that New Yorkers thrill to find because they can afford the rent and it is a duplex.
My problem with this play is we’ve seen it before in Death of a Salesman, only now we all are the salesman. I could continue to name the plays that this springs from, they are numerous. We learn nothing here, we move forward not a step and we linger in the shadows of Mr. Karam’s words. I need more than that. I need to feel for these characters and I do not.
What my friend said to me was “You have seen so much tragedy and have faced so much, that of course you would find this dull. This is everyday life and yours has never been everyday. You find ways to be grateful, to see the light, you don’t dwell in the tragedy, you move forward.”
Many laughed at the lines. I did not find them funny. Many an audience member stood, but there were also many who like me who stood like deer’s in headlights shaking our heads at why so many think this play is so brilliant.
The Humans: Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St.