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LETTERS TO EDITOR
FILM & TV
A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Since The Humans unfolds during that all-American holiday, Thanksgiving, the six people sharing turkey and their special annual rituals represent much of what's made the American Dream an all too common nightmare — especially for families like the Blakes still strongly rooted in the working class.
The setting is in a two-level apartment in New York's Chinatown, but the Blakes (Reed Birney as Erik and Jayne Houdyshell as his wife Deirdre) are, like the family in the terrific Sons of the Prophet, from Scranton, Pennsylvania. The apartment occupants hosting the dinner are the youngest Blake daughter, Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her significant other, Richard (Arian Moayed).
Both Brigid and her sister Aimee (Cassie Beck) have left Scranton for less middlebrow and more upscale lives than their parents. Brigid as a musician, Aimee a lawyer. Deirdre and Erik miss their daughters and wish they hadn't abandoned the family's religious values and more coventional romantic choices. However, Brigid and Aimee's upward mobility aims are in keeping with what their parents always worked for, namely that their children should do better than them.
Once the out-of-town Blakes arrive at Brigid's apartment — Deirdre and Erik with his "Moma" (Lauren Klein) who has advanced Alzheimer's in tow and Aimee from Philadelphia — the same themes Karam explored in Sons of the Prophet begin to surface: The frailty of the American Dream in a system that sends those who've taken a giant step forward (owning their homes, planning enjoyable retirements) two steps back as they must shoulder the unfair burdens of aging, illness, a changing economy, and their children failing to gain a firm foothold on anticipated success. As if coping with what's beyond their control weren't enough for these people, there's the fallout from personal failings.
By bringing the Blakes to New York, Karam establishes a sense of malaise reaching beyond factory towns like Scranton. Brigid and Richard's apartment is close enough to the World Trade Center tragedy to stir uneasy memories, especially for anyone who was there. And don't be fooled by that apartment being a duplex. This isn't one of those lofts New Yorkers dream about. One of the two floors is a windowless basement.
The still largely unfurnished and quite shabby apartment (excellent work by David Zinn) with its single barred window sets the tone for a celebration overhung by an overall sense of unease, as well as some of the spooky business provided by lighting and sound designers Justin Townsend and Fitz Patton. The two floors also give the playwright a chance to efficiently make the audience privy to the various causes of individual and inter-personal tensions and build the expectation of some sort of explosive revelation by Erik.
While the dilemma of the senior Blakes is the play's most intense, this is very much an American tragedy, with health and job problems also affecting the sisters. Richard, who's preparing the meal, is from a different class than the Blakes. Like Sons of the Prophet's transplanted New Yorker who moved to Scranton for a less pressured business environment, Richard seems enamored of a chance to be part of this family. While he is not exactly a member of the one percent who have everything to gain from the unfair disparities in the current economy, growing up up in a family of professionals has not been problem free (which is why he's still in grad school at age 38). Still, he does have a trust fund to shelter him from the financial hardships faced by the Blakes.
Mr. Karam skillfully establishes the situation and develops the family dynamic with dialogue so real you feel you're eavesdropping. But even Joe Mantello's directorial expertize can't prevent this theatrical platter from coming off as piled somewhat too high with problems, nor keep the upstairs-downstairs business and naturalistic small talk from occasional tedium. Fortunately, the Roundabout always attracts top tier talent and the actors here manage to deflect from this.
Reed Birney once again proves himself to be one of our best and most versatile actors. Jane Houdyshell can tease laughs out of pain and anger. Sarah Steele continues to build on her busy resume creating winning characters on stage and screen. Cassie Beck is touching as the sister with the most problems, and Arian Moayed is excellent as the devoted but hardly trouble free Richard.
Jane Klein has the most difficult role as the dementia stricken mother whose care is an emotional and financial nightmare for Deirdre and Erik. A farewell e-mail she sent to her family before heading for the darkness of the illness she knows is overtaking her is one of Mr. Karam's master strokes. But I was less intrigued with the discussion of Quasar, a scary monster comic book that explains the title and is supposed to tie in with the play's scary-creepy business.
These people aren't murdered or murderers, or commit crimes that will send them to jail. Nor is The Humans without humor and warmth. Yet it's painful to watch rather than an easy divertisement. When it's over, you know things might get even worse for the Blakes by Christmas, but they'll still be together.
The Humans certainly left me looking forward to celebrating holidays without all this sturm and drang with my own family. But no matter how lucky we are in escaping the misfortunes experienced by the Blakes, the fear of ill health, old age and death haunts all of us. True to Momo's mumblings, there are some places from which "you can never come back."
Sons of the Prophet
Speech and Debate
Karam's interests have always been timely, even before his Roundabout commissions, as evident in his collaboration with PJ Paparelli, Columbinus .