‘The Humans’: 2016 Tony Award-winning Best Play dissects American social decline
From left, Reed Birney, Cassie Beck, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Sarah Steele and Nick Mills / Lawrence K. Ho.

LOS ANGELES—The Humans (seen June 20) kind of sneaks up on you. It starts off as a modest family drama as mother, father, grandmother, two daughters and a boyfriend gather for Thanksgiving dinner in New York City. Old Irish family blessings and songs are shared, lurid hometown gossip from Scranton, Pa., is aired, some good-natured kidding around, and then gradually each one gets to tell what’s really going on in their lives. It ain’t pretty.

I didn’t even feel the full shattering effect for a couple of days, as the pieces fell into place in my mind.

Based on the Left Coast as I am, and busy with L.A.’s rich cultural life, I don’t closely follow New York theatre. So when the announcement came of Stephen Karam’s The Humans coming to the Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre, perhaps the most prestigious house in town, after winning four Tony Awards, including Best Play of 2016, I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. I went in with no expectations.

The touring production features much of the Broadway cast, including Reed Birney as the father, Erik Blake, and Jayne Houdyshell as the mother, Deirdre Blake, who both won their own Tony Awards for these performances in 2016. Two-time Tony Award-winning director Joe Mantello helms this tight ensemble cast.

The entire creative team of the Broadway production returns for the national tour, including Tony Award-winning scenic designer for this play, David Zinn, costume designer Sarah Laux, lighting designer Justin Townsend and sound designer Fitz Patton.

At the time of its closing, The Humans had played a respectable 502 performances in New York. It also won a passel of other theatre awards (you can look it up).

Let’s start talking about Zinn’s set. It’s a two-level construction depicting with classic realism a split-level apartment in Chinatown that is quite a bargain for New York City. The upper level front door leads to the street (or more likely to a street-level corridor in the building). A  circular staircase connects to the lower basement level, where the kitchen and dining area are. A door on that level leads into a basement corridor. It’s a dark apartment, even on the street level, and made darker by lightbulbs and circuits inexplicably going out.

It’s almost as though the place is haunted. It is, actually: Strange loud noises from upstairs punctuate the action frequently; they sound like falling bodies. What could that old Chinese woman be doing up there? And the grinding compactor in the building makes a horrible noise, too, enough to drown out conversations momentarily. The apartment flooded in the last big hurricane—which was itself a scandalous indictment of municipal failure. All these reasons must be why the rent for this admittedly spacious but foreboding apartment is so cheap.

Daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard Saad (Nick Mills) are just moving into the place. Brigid got a degree in music but can’t find a job and still has student debt over her head, so she part-times serving at couple of bars.

Somehow the moving truck got waylaid and the place is pretty barren, an odd lounge chair and a couch, boxes piled up unopened, a couple of folding tables and chairs for the holiday dinner on paper plates.

To celebrate the new apartment, the Blakes have driven up from Scranton (where the playwright is from) with Momo, Erik’s mother, Fiona Blake (Lauren Klein), who has advanced Alzheimer’s and uses a wheelchair. To get from floor to floor, the wheelchair must go out the door on one level, into the hallway to the elevator, and then in the door on the other level. She blurts out some incomprehensible mutterings from time to time, although she perks up and joins the familiar traditional blessing. She worked for years in a New York sweatshop.

Brigid’s sister Aimee (Cassie Beck) is a well-paid lawyer whose fortunes have run out on her. Medical problems, which oblige her to go upstairs often to the single bathroom, have caused her firm to deny her path to partnership (although they wouldn’t admit to that reason, of course). She’s also trying to get over the breakup with her longtime lover Carol. She wonders if she’d rather be unhappy alone or unhappy with someone.

Richard “Rich” Saad (Nick Mills) is a few years older than Brigid—he’s 38—and after a spell of lost depressive years in his youth is now on course to become a therapist, like his mother. His wise grandmother (not clear on which side) set him up with a trust fund which will only start kicking in at the age of 40, so it appears that after these rocky first years in the relationship, he and Brigid will soon be OK financially. “Do you get how that sounds,” Erik asks, “to a man my age?”

As a kid Rich says he was in love with a TV show Quasar, in which monsters from outer space watched the strange doings of the humans on Earth—clearly the reference in the play’s title. The set itself, looking like a dollhouse or perhaps a two-story monkey cage at the zoo, lends us the same perspective on these unique but familiar people.

When I noted the name Saad, I thought it sounded Arabic, and indeed it is (there’s an American ice hockey player named Brandon Saad who is of Syrian descent). Karam, the playwright, is himself Lebanese-American. As the Blake family gradually reveals itself to be slipping into unforeseen penury, “Rich” Saad stands out as perhaps the only salvation for their future: Interestingly, someone (at least on his father’s side) from what has become in the America of today, a “despised” group. Nor is it coincidental that it’s Richard who does all the Thanksgiving cooking for Brigid’s family: The provider.

Curiously, in another play recently reviewed, As We Babble On, it’s a wealthy philanthropist who rescues the writing career of his lover, a character who was also supporting herself as a barista. I don’t know if this is a trend in theatre, but I do think society has been looking to scattershot philanthropy to save us from our worst excesses at a time when income disparities are so out of whack and government shows no interest in reversing that momentum.

Deirdre has ably served for decades as the manager of a small company in Scranton, but complains that at least a couple of younger hot-shot bosses in their twenties have come along who earn four times her take. She is a goodhearted, sentimental, almost childlike Catholic, who volunteers for a refugee community. She brings a small statue of the Virgin Mary as a house present, knowing full well it will be put in a drawer by her unobservant daughter.

Erik has been for almost forty years on the maintenance staff of St. Paul’s Catholic school, but now, just short of retirement, he’s been fired for an indiscretion which (to me) doesn’t seem so atrocious but to the priests who run the school it is unforgivable.

Their lives are falling apart in front of them. With their income so reduced now, they don’t even know how they will be able to keep Momo at home. “Don’tcha think it should cost less to be alive?” Erik asks. Family affections and connections still are meaningful, however. Perhaps the Blakes chose to spend Thanksgiving with their daughters as a kind of family pow-wow, although the conclusion is ambiguous at best.

Erik admits to having restless night sweats and strange dreams, and Rich, the future therapist, manages to eke some of these out of him. One had to do with Erik being in a tunnel, terrified that he couldn’t escape. Rich suggests that perhaps next time, if the dream recurs, he stay in the tunnel and figure out a solution. That advice comes into play in the final scene.

“The play is a comedy”

I know I’m painting a somber picture—it is an unsettling tale of loss of American innocence—but there is also much humor in the bickering, the gossiping, the nagging. Karam is quoted in the program, and I guess we must take him at his word, that “the play is a comedy…. watching any family interact for 90 minutes is going to be partially, if not largely, hilarious.” “It’s sort of the epic via the intimate.” One can only compare to Chekhov, who also described his end-of-an-epoch plays about the transformations taking place in Russian society as comedies.

“I didn’t start The Humans by saying, ‘I’m going to write about the dying middle class,’” says Karam. “As a playwright, you can’t write about what it means to be alive and not be political.” The play was written and produced before runner-up in the popular vote Donald Trump became president; if anything, the issue of the hollowing out of America and the betrayal of its however imperfect democracy is even more sharply apparent now. American insecurity and anxiety are on full display.

In some ways The Humans reminded me of David Leavitt’s 1998 novel The Page Turner (released as a film under the title Food of Love). A brilliant young pianist from Texas who has won all the state competitions enters New York’s Juilliard School of Music, and it soon becomes clear that in competition with other talented performers, he doesn’t match up.

What happens when life unravels along with our expectations of it, what becomes of dreams unfulfilled, careers in retreat, the majority of us flawed human beings who don’t make it to the top in our reputed meritocracy? One misstep, one patch of illness, can spell The End. Can’t there be a decent place for everyone? In a more centrally planned economy, maybe Brigid could be offered work writing music for community theatre and gain some valuable experience.

The system chews people up, much like the loud bone-crushing commercial compactor in the building that goes off periodically in the play. As the classic Joe Glazer song says, “Who will take care of you, how’ll you get by? when you’re too old to work and you’re too young to die.”

The late great gay politician Harvey Milk, running for office in San Francisco, used to say, “You gotta give ’em hope.” Even the most stolid of the old socialist realists agreed with that. The Humans is too sophisticated a work of art to be obviously prescriptive. Still, leaving the theatre, what are audiences supposed to think? That we humans are speeding to hell in a handbasket? Maybe just zeroing in on the problems of an inhumane society is enough to stir the conscience.

The Humans plays through July 29. Tickets are available by calling (213) 972-4400, online, or by visiting the Center Theatre Group Box Office located at the Ahmanson Theatre. The Ahmanson Theatre is located at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles 90012.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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