The Humans

Stephen Karam
Roundabout
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York

Reed Birney (Erik Blake), Cassie Beck (Aimee Blake), Jayne Houdyshell (Deirdre Blake), Lauren Klein (Fiona Blake), Sarah Steele (Brigid Blake), Arian Moayed (Richard Saad) Credit: Bridget Lacombe
Sarah Steele (Brigid Blake), Cassie Beck (Aimee Blake) Credit: Bridget Lacombe
Sarah Steele (Brigid Blake), Reed Birney (Erik Blake) Credit: Bridget Lacombe

On the strength of this dystopian allegory, it is safe to say that, even if Stephen Karam’s authorial voiced is not absolutely unique, it is certainly highly original.

The Humans started out at Roundabout, Off-Broadway and made such an impression that a Broadway transfer seemed inevitable. Its subsequent success can be measured in a stream of Tony nominations and awards, including Best Play.

The British have long wondered what Thanksgiving is really like. In the world of the Blakes, it is pure hell.

The clan gathers in the new David Zinn-designed Chinatown duplex of daughter Brigid played by Sarah Steele and her new partner Rich, Arian Moayed playing the happiest person on show despite his history of depression. They meet for what is effectively a double celebration, since the noisy apartment is so newly occupied that it is not even fully-furnished.

Like all good Catholics, the parents Erik and Deirdre, given great depth and heart by Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell, wish that the young couple could marry. In their dreams (a topic of the play) they would also like them to live closer to home in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

However, for the postgrad student and his younger partner, a wannabe musician currently working in bars, New York is the place to pursue their dreams.

Completing the party are Fiona Blake playing scarily incoherent Momo, a representative of an even older generation that has gone gaga and Brigid’s sister Aimee. Cassie Beck plays the lesbian lawyer with a serious illness but no partner or job prospects.

Therefore, as the play starts, there is little for which to give thanks in this household. Then things start to go downhill at an ever-increasing rate of knots.

Without wishing to give too much away, like so many families, while there is love in abundance, everyone knows how to wind up the others. While Momo does this unknowingly, the rest cannot help themselves.

Unfortunately, the misfortunes that pile up in what appears to be a cruel allegory attacking not so much The Great American Dream as the USA of today with its broken relationships, job insecurity and financial disasters (and this was before the election of Donald Trump), are plentiful. The imposition of 9/11 as far more than a metaphor, adds to the drama.

As the situation worsens, you imagine things cannot get any worse but they do in an evening that is probably best classified as a comedy but can be truly chilling and may not leave too many visitors with smiles on their faces.

Several of the awards and nominations went to the actors, not to mention director Joe Mantello, and the pairing of Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell is outstanding, working together to depict very meticulously a marriage that is long past its sell-by date but continues because that is what their generation and class does.

As the relative youngsters trying to make a better life, Sarah Steele and Cassie Beck also catch the mood of their peers well.

What this 100-minute drama does superbly is make its audience reconsider their own lives and those of their fellows in a new light, which many would argue is the purpose of theatre. It also explains the popularity of a play that will inevitably cross the Atlantic some time soon and might then baffle but challenge British visitors as it has their American counterparts.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher