By Claire Del Sorbo
With Thanksgiving on its way, going home for the holidays is something students and many other young people seem to dread. There are many things people would rather do than return to family members from home, make small talk about college and relationships and have heated political arguments. At the end of the day, however, we still view these people as our family and refuse to let irreconcilable differences affect that. These intricacies of human nature, family and the future are the topics of one of the best new plays of the year, Stephen Karam’s “The Humans,” excellently directed by Joe Mantello. Upon seeing this hilarious, tragic and ultimately wonderful production, I easily saw why it won Best Play at the Tony Awards in the summer.
In a duplet apartment in Chinatown, Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Rich (Arian Moayed) are preparing for Thanksgiving dinner with Brigid’s dysfunctional parents coming up from Scranton, Pennsylvania, Erik (Reed Birney) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), as well as her older sister, Aimee (Cassie Beck), who works in Philadelphia. Accompanying them is Momo (Lauren Klein), Erik’s aging mother who has dementia. Erik and Deirdre are both disappointed with their daughters for leaving home and for abandoning religion, but they are determined to have a happy holiday together.
The parents seem to envy their daughters somewhat for their success, an embodiment of the idea that each generation seems to be doing progressively better than the last. However, Brigid and Aimee are both dealing with their own problems. Brigid is inundated with debt from music school and her dream of finding success as a composer has become bleak. Aimee will likely be laid off from work because she has been shirking responsibilities due to her sadness over a breakup with a long term girlfriend.
It becomes easy to judge Erik and Deidre. One could claim they are jealous of their daughters, but it becomes more complicated as the play progresses. Their jealousy is due to fear, fate and the sheer nature of protecting those closest to the family. Erik is dissatisfied with his daughters leaving home, not because he is jealous, but because he is afraid for them. It is revealed that he accompanied Aimee to a job interview on 9/11 and recalls two frightening hours when he was unable to find her. He is also uncomfortable with the idea of Brigid living in the middle of a flood zone. Karam demonstrates that every one of us is at the mercy of fate in our lives, which determines the course of them.
The cast is certainly one of the finest on Broadway. Although “The Humans” works within the “dinner party” archetype, the characters and their actors are anything but cliche. Reed Birney gave a touching performance as Erik, a father, son and husband who tries his best to keep his family happy but is withering away inside. He sets the tone for a dynamic family. Jayne Houdyshell is charming as Deidre, a fun and humorous mother whose personality persists amidst the seriousness, but, at times, she comes off as insensitive. Cassie Beck and Sarah Steele accurately portray the nature of young millennials as dreamers, both constantly aiming toward their lives’ goals. Not to forget Arian Moayed, who has a comparatively smaller role as Richard, must receive some credit for being the play’s mediator.
“The Humans” is an anomalistic play. It is one that is as empathetic as it is straightforward, as honest as it is entertaining and captures the fear of the unknown that most of us feel but do not wish to reveal to others. As the lights dim and the play ambiguously ends, the audience is left wondering whether or not the Blakes will still enjoy their Thanksgiving. They need not fear. Karam makes it obvious that, in spite of the past, overlooking all differences and previous grievances, family is still family, and that will always be so.