Everything people love and hate about plays is perfectly exemplified by Stephen Karam's The Humans, which was a hit on and off Broadway and opened at the Seattle Rep last week. On the plus side: It's an intimate, insightful, involving piece of domestic drama, a textbook for accurate and eloquent stage design, and a showcase for fantastic performances by the entire ensemble cast, led by Pamela Reed, Richard Thomas, and a standout Therese Plaehn.
On the minus side: It's a play that throws its lasso around everything wrong in America in 2017, forcing the characters to groan under the weight of their designation as symbols of the long, slow death of the lie of the American dream.
The collapse of institutions, the wane of the white working-class stranglehold on prosperity, the crisis in health care accessibility, the failure of religion, the decay of cities, the erosion of suburbs, the myth that things will be fine if you work hard and follow your dreams—all these critical subjects are illustrated by the six characters. As if the playwright's reach weren't sufficiently ambitious, he even trots out Hurricane Sandy and 9/11.
The quest for relevance and magnitude has ruined many talented writers, and The Humans' shortcomings issue almost entirely from its yearning to be an Important Play About Who We Are Now. But then again, its human successes are deeply satisfying, and its insights into the small ways families destroy and depend upon each other actually do elevate it into an Important Play About Who We Are Now.
The premise couldn't be simpler: The Blake family is having Thanksgiving dinner at the new downtown New York City apartment of its youngest member, Brigid, and her boyfriend, Richard. The parents, Erik and Deidre, have driven in from Scranton, Pennsylvania, along with Erik's wheelchair-bound mother, Momo. Also present is the older daughter, Aimee, an attorney whose long-term girlfriend has recently broken up with her. The structure is simple, too: Before the meal, during the meal, and after the meal. It's a tight 90 minutes with no intermission.
The simplicity is in the service of intimacy. You see the daughters bristle at their mother's misguided attempts to be close to them, the mother's small heartbreak when she overhears them making fun of her, the father's efforts to seem chummy and patriarchal when it's increasingly obvious that he has something terrible to disclose. More than that, as the play moves forward, you feel less like an observer and more like a participant in the family dynamic, because even if you aren't part of a white working-class Catholic family from Pennsylvania, families are families. Or were, anyway.
Once the health revelations start pouring out—dementia, crumbling knees, ulcerative colitis—and the smaller nuisances, like the constant pounding from the upstairs apartment, become more glaring, the theme becomes clear: For most humans in America today, the illusion of success is predicated on settling for less than all humans deserve. Or, as Erik says early on, "Don'tcha think it should cost less to be alive?"