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Tolstoy famously said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Stephen Karam has added a twenty-first century American twist to this old quote with “The Humans”. How happy can a family be in a society that is dismantling all the conditions for humans such as the Blakes to be safe, solvent, even healthy? The first thing we feel as we watch the six members of the family meet for Thanksgiving at daughter/sister Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard’s (Arian Moayed) twilight zone of an apartment in lower Manhattan is a longing for our own family. That moment early in the party when parents and siblings are arriving, gifts are given, and we are full of hope because this time we are ready to love and be loved.
To accomplish this in the first five minutes of a play is a feat.
“The Humans” is Stephen Karam’s second commission with the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York, after “Sons of the Prophet”. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and won the Tony Award for Best Play for 2016. Now after a phenomenal run in New York and a season in Los Angeles, the original Broadway cast, including the director Joe Mantello are here in London at the Hampstead Theatre.
“Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?” Reed Birney’s Eric Blake is a warm, loving and troubled patriarch. His tall aging silver haired presence fills the stage as befits his position as the senior and only male in his family. Yet something is undermining him. Is it the fact that he is a guest at his daughter’s home and must contend with a younger, and he soon discovers, richer man? It is painful to watch a man be demolished on the inside while his body is still strong. It affects his posture, his speech, it makes him try to shrink. Karam confronts much more here than the economic decline of the ninety-nine percent. Through the story of a family that can still love, communicate and laugh with each other, Karam brings into focus the question of agency and personal choice. Is Eric losing his status as a father through the fault of Wall Street and the stars or through his own actions? Is Brigid not making it as a musician because of the cut throat competition or because of her lack of confidence? How about elder sister Aimee (Cassie Beck) who’s losing her job and makes dry jokes about her heartbreak and her ulcerative colitis? How much control do any of us have over our lives? Eric has driven in with his demented mother ‘Momo’ (Lauren Klein) who bursts into unintelligible babble or tantrums and whose wheelchair is almost a character itself in a play set in a two-floor ‘duplex’ linked by a spiral staircase. Yet, “Momo” wrote an eloquent love letter to her granddaughters a few years back when she felt herself slipping away. “The Humans” is about just that, humans in America and elsewhere as we try to hang on to love and dignity in the face of powerlessness and chaos. Meet Deirdre, the generous, caring and disillusioned wife and mother played with genius by Jayne Houdyshell. There is a scene when dessert is served and Deirdre, whose pleasures in life are few, wants to savor this moment and takes her time in choosing a pastry. Brigid is getting impatient and Eric decides for his wife, “the one with all the frosting” and Houdyshell’s Deidre seizes up. And we are struck with the truth of the hurt even though it flashes through her face.
Karam wanted no interval and made sure all the action is in real-time, even the moments spent in the bathroom or in the elevator outside the duplex. And for all this realism, the atmosphere in the play shifts slowly towards the uncanny. There is talk of dreams, Richard recalls falling through “an ice cream cone made of grass” and Eric sees a woman whose skin is pulled over her eyes, her ears, her mouth. Pipes whistle, neighbors pounce on the floor, fuses blow, nothing out of the ordinary for a basement in Chinatown. Yet the building conspires to terrorize Eric, left alone with himself. It’s a brilliant scene and we get caught up in the suspense until Karam and Mantello lead him – and us – back into the light. The moral is simple: As long we have each other, us humans can go on. Imperfectly.
The Humans continues at the Hampstead Theatre until 13th October, 2018. Tickets are from £10 – £40.