Through Jan. 28
The Kennedy Center
All of Stephen Karam’s plays to date feature gay characters. The 30-something out playwright has explained more than once that his characters can exist onstage without the formerly requisite coming-out scenes because of the work of gay playwrights like Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner who came before him.
In Karam’s “The Humans,” (winner of the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play), an American family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner at its younger daughter’s home in New York City. Currently at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre, the beautifully rendered Broadway production helmed by director Joe Mantello is on the second stop of its first national tour. Prominently featured is scenic designer David Zinn’s Tony Award-winning set, a rundown duplex apartment consisting of ground floor rooms and a spiral staircase leading to a basement floor where there’s a kitchen and eating space. There’s action taking place on both levels most of the time.
Karam weds absolute realism with theatrical wiles in this wonderful 90-minute play that unfolds in real time. Long-married Irish Catholic couple Erik and Dierdre Blake (played by Richard Thomas and Pamela Reed) have travelled from their home in Scranton, Pa., with Erik’s aged mother Momo (Lauren Klein), who uses a wheelchair and has dementia, to spend the holiday with Brigid (Daisy Eagan), an aspiring composer who works as a bartender, and her older boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega) at their new, yet-to-be-furnished place in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Older daughter Aimee (Therese Plaehn), who works as a lawyer in Philadelphia, is there too.
Aimee is not in a great place personally or professionally but her problems aren’t exclusively those of a lesbian character. In addition to recently having been informed that she’s no longer on track to make partner, she’s heartbroken after having been dumped by her girlfriend and suffers from ulcerative colitis that may result in a colonoscopy. Yet between bouts of tears and trips to the toilet, Aimee shows good humor and good sense. It’s a character that certainly isn’t idealized and Karam introduces her sexuality very naturally without fanfare.
During the visit, opinions are freely expressed. Deirdre is concerned with the apartment’s lack of light and Brigid’s marital status. Erik is concerned with flooding and not surprisingly security. After all it’s the big city, but more importantly, he experienced a near miss with death while spending the day in New York on 9-11. The sisters are curious when their parents will break ground on a long-planned lake house, and concerned just how long their mother can take care of Momo at home. Erik and Deirdre evade specifics but insist all is well.
Soon it comes out (for reasons I won’t reveal) that Erik, who’s worked for nearly 30 years at a Catholic high school, mostly in maintenance, and Deirdre who’s been an office manager at the same firm for decades, are facing terrifyingly imminent financial insecurity. It’s also revealed that both Erik and Richard are having unsettling dreams. The father’s dream features a woman whose eyes, mouth and ears are covered with skin. What’s equally creepy are the disruptive bumps from the upstairs neighbor, and how as afternoon moves into evening, the already dark apartment loses even more light as bulbs burn out.
The tour features a uniformly top-notch cast. Thomas’ Erik is ostensibly strong yet riddled with vulnerability and Reed’s Deirdre is seemingly unsophisticated yet full of wit and candor. Eagan and Plaehn share sisterly chemistry as they mock their mothers’ incessant texts and emails with links to wide-ranging, sometimes kooky articles. Brigid says to her mother: “You don’t have to text her every time a lesbian kills herself.”
Vegas ably assays conciliatory Richard. His character inadvertently introduces topics of mental health and class (he’s the son of professionals and will come into a trust fund when he soon hits 40). Klein (who played Momo on Broadway) is remarkable. Her long periods of sleep are interrupted by the repeating of senseless phrases and moments of delightful lucidity and a harrowing, violent outburst.
“The Humans” deftly exposes the anxiety that an enormous swathe of the non-rich in America currently feel. But not without hilarity and hope.