Family fuss? It’s only human

In the comic drama "The Humans" at Artists Rep, Thanksgiving dinner with the Blakes just might knock the stuffing out of you

Maybe you missed it last year when that big musical about the Founding Fathers was the talk of the Tonys and just about anyplace else you turned. But while Hamilton was sweeping up most of the attention and a bunch of Tony Awards, including best new musical, a much smaller play was making its own mark: Stephen Karam’s family comedy-drama The Humans, which took the award for best new play, plus two more for best performers and one for best set design. If it never broke through as a pop-cultural phenomenon the way Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical hit has, The Humans has left its mark, and is likely to be produced many times for many years on many regional stages.

From left: Vana O’Brien (in wheelchair), Quinlan Fitzgerald (partially hidden), John San Nicolas, Luisa Sermol, Val Landrum (partially hidden), Robert Pescovitz. Photo: Russell J Young

On Saturday night it opened on Artists Repertory Theatre’s Morrison Stage after a week of preview performances, beating Hamilton to the Portland punch. (A few Portlanders got a first look at The Humans a little over a year ago, when The Reading Parlor performed an engaging and decidedly promising one-night staged reading of it in a little side room at Artists Rep.) The Hamilton road company will settle into Keller Auditorium for a run March 20-April 8 next year, and I can still hear the wails reverberating from frustrated potential ticket buyers who couldn’t get through on the phone lines when advance sales kicked off Nov. 17.

The Humans has been doing well, too – it sold out its opening weekend in the vastly smaller Artists Rep space, and already has added three shows – but while ticket sales are obviously important the truer value of The Humans is less as a phenomenon than as a fascinating piece of storytelling, in a surprisingly old-fashioned form. Karam’s 90-minute, no-intermission tale (the new standard in the age of get-in-and-get-out) is what used to be called a “well-made play” – a work with a discernible interior structure, no wasted measures, and everything in it referring one way or another to everything else, even if you can’t tell from the beginning what the connection is. It’s a tight little box, loaded with springs.

The Humans is set at a family Thanksgiving dinner, one of those affairs filled with love and regret and dissension and secrets, and it follows in the footsteps of many an American realist classic, gathering a group of people into a pressure-cooker situation and letting the steam build. Make the setup about a group of strangers and you get William Inge’s Bus Stop. Make it about family and you get Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Artists Rep’s production, directed by company artistic director Dámaso Rodríguez, is smooth and funny and well-timed, with the sort of carefully calibrated monkey wrenches that can throw it into sudden and ominous dark places. The play’s title is apt because what Karam’s getting at, really, is the perverse and quickening capacity inherent in the human animal to stumble and twist things out of shape and mess up love, and endure the pain, and try somehow to make the love live again. Even the best among us fall short: It’s what humans do. Even the closest among us fight that intimacy, reach out for independence, gasp for air, betray and are betrayed.

Upstairs, Downstairs: It’s not a castle, but Megan Wilkerson’s split stage has plenty of space. Photo: Russell J Young

Gathering in a prewar tenement apartment in Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown are three generations of the Blake family, which is split not only generationally but also geographically. The two-level apartment where daughter Brigid (Quinlan Fitzgerald) and her older boyfriend Richard (John San Nicolas) have not quite moved in is aged and clunky and loud but big by Manhattan standards (Megan Wilkerson’s tall bi-level set is a cutaway of the basement and ground-floor levels) if not by the standards of Scranton, Pennsylvania, the decaying coal and industrial city where Brigid’s parents Erik (Robert Pescovitz) and Deirdre (Luisa Sermol) still live and devoutly wish their two daughters did, too. Val Landrum plays older daughter Aimee, a lawyer in Philadelphia, and the cast is rounded out by Erik’s mother, Momo (Vana O’Brien), who is wheelchair bound and deep in the depths of dementia and is not, on this Thanksgiving, having “one of her good days.”

All six of these roles reward good actors with their complexities and surprise, and the Artists Rep cast has a fine time playing around inside their skins. Conflicts roll out sometimes slowly and sometimes swiftly. It’s obvious from the get-go that Erik is suspicious of Richard, who is several years older than Brigid and too soft (he’s 38, and his nifty little trust fund kicks in at 40) and too New Yorky and, well, probably unacceptable. Both daughters duck away from their mother’s prying questions and comments.

Sister Talk: Landrum (left) and Fitzgerald. Photo: Russell J Young

The anxieties and frustrations of America’s coastal/inland, red/blue divide play into the action, as do moral, or maybe just generational, differences. Deirdre, a devout Catholic, can’t help pointing out the advantages of marriage to Brigid and Richard, who aren’t interested. Maybe because they’ve had more time to deal with it, Erik and Deirdre seem more accepting of Aimee’s lesbian life, which right now isn’t going too well: She’s been dumped by her longtime partner, the stress has messed up her intestines, and she’s about to get fired because she’s missed too much work. Erik, meanwhile, seems to be knocking back a few too many beers, and Momo’s stretched out on the coach, now and again mumbling something no one can understand.

The Humans is no Hillbilly Elegy – it’s neither prescriptive nor political, as J.D. Vance’s memoir is – but it does play with similar emotional and sectarian misunderstandings, which in the case of Karam (who grew up in Scranton) seem backdrop to the family dynamics, and the family dynamics seem to be about the ways we express or shy away from love. How close is too close? How far is too far? What binds the actors Rodríguez has gathered onstage, and the audience to the characters, is an overarching affection. Sermol is warm and funny and embracing as Deirdre, the glue of the family; Fitzgerald is a younger-sibling spitfire as Brigid; Landrum brings a sweet and puzzled vulnerability to Aimee; San Nicholas is smooth and adaptable as the family outsider, who just might turn out to be the glue of the next generation; Pescovitz is halting and gruff and off-balance as Erik, the patriarch caught in a crisis of the soul. And O’Brien, who spends most of the play shut off in the corner, the family’s honored burden, sits and waits and watches and erupts into an existential wail, a fearful wonderment at the nothingness of the abyss to come. Momo may not know what’s going on. But she feels it all.

From left: Pescovitz, O’Brien, Fitzgerald, Sermol, Landrum. Photo: Russell J Young

I would like to write something about the play’s ending, which is difficult to do because it contains a Big Moment that should not be given away, even though Karam lays the groundwork for it much earlier. Whether it’s the production or the script itself I can’t quite tell, but on Sunday afternoon, when I saw the show, I found the final scene jarring. This is partly because it broke the realistic approach the performance had taken up to this point, and partly because what had seemed a true ensemble play now seemed in retrospect to be really Erik’s play, his crisis, his opportunity. I didn’t see Pescovitz building to such a point, and yet I liked his tentative, interrupted, quietly frustrated approach to the role: It seemed to fit the character. Would a more assertive performance have made more sense? Is the ending too big a leap in the writing? Did I simply miss the cues? I can’t say. To me the ending seems like The Metaphor That Ate The Play. And yet it’s not so hard to digest. What comes before is on such a high and pleasing level that I can accept an ending that seems to overreach, and perhaps it won’t bother you at all. I say, go see The Humans if you can. It’s a fine play in a fine production. And you probably can’t get tickets to Hamilton without remortgaging the house, anyway.


The Humans continues through Dec. 17 on the Morrison Stage of Artists Repertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.

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