This play deserves a trigger warning. If you are a person who dreads the holidays, because you know you’ll have to try to put on a happy face while gritting your way through a tense family gathering that’s liable to turn explosive, then be advised that Stephen Karam’s The Humans is an ultra-realistic depiction of such a gathering.
Also be advised that Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production (through December 10) is a strong one. You will feel as if you’re right there with the feckless family members, as they strive to celebrate a troubled Thanksgiving within the Valley of the Shadow of the Turkey of Discontent. The script is stuffed with simmering unease among characters who each have hot-button issues, and The Public’s fine cast does a spot-on job of portraying these people. Each, in his or her own way, dances deftly—or sometimes, awkwardly—through the minefield like a hot-footed Turkey on a Hot Tin Roof.
The Humans is a comedy/drama, so there are many moments of comic relief. (“Relief” being the right word, as hoo boy, is relief ever needed.) The comic bits range from hectic absurdity to snarky irony; they too are very well played.
But here’s the question that I and my theater-going friend were left with, after watching The Humans and appreciating the virtuosity of various elements. What’s it all supposed to add up to?
Misadventures of the Marginalized Middle
Clearly the play is meant to be more than a dark sitcom. Along with winning the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play, The Humans was a finalist for that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama, won by Hamilton. And being short-listed for the Pulitzer is an indicator of social relevance. Pulitzer juries, over the years, have tended to favor plays that deal with significant cultural and/or socio-political themes.
The Humans appears to score high on this measure. It has a recurring theme, brought out in different forms through different characters: the pressures experienced by the beleaguered American middle class. A brief synopsis will give the picture.
Brigid (played by Valeri Mudek), the young hostess of the Thanksgiving dinner, is a recent college graduate with tons of student debt and a seemingly unmarketable music degree. She has just moved into a bizarre, creaky apartment in New York’s Chinatown with her boyfriend Richard (Arash Mokhtar), who isn’t exactly rich either: He’s back at college in his late thirties while Brigid earns their keep working bar-and-waitress jobs.
But hey, it’s holiday time plus housewarming time, so Brigid’s folks arrive to share a meal and see the new home. Her mother and father (Charlotte Booker and J. Tucker Smith) are working-class Irish Catholics from Scranton. They’re squeezed by financial and marital problems that they would like to hide but gradually reveal. They have the added burden of caring for Brigid’s beloved grandmother, “Momo” (Cecelia Riddett), now round-the-bend senile and brought to the non-accessibility-compliant apartment in a wheelchair.
Filling out the guest list is Brigid’s big sister, Aimee (Courtney Balan). She’s a glamorous attorney at an elite New York firm—which sounds super until you learn that she is being nudged out of the firm, suffers from severe colitis, and has been dumped by her longtime lesbian partner.
Troubles aplenty: You could even accuse playwright Karam of stacking the deck. It’s not the deck of the Titanic, but it’s close, and the wacky nature of Brigid and Rich’s apartment reinforces the shipwrecked feeling. The set shows it as a two-level unit knocked together with a narrow, nautical spiral stair connecting the upper and lower floors. Thunderous noises rattle down at times from the tenants above. Lights flicker out ominously. Momo erupts from her torpor to wail random curses, such as “You can never come back! You can never come back!”
Yet the crew attempts to party on. There’s a truly touching early scene, when all shipmates join to launch the festivities with a traditional Irish song. Their voices soar wonderfully, beautifully. But a haunting note of irony resounds. The song is “The Parting Glass”—sung at farewells and funerals, and familiar to video-game enthusiasts as the closing song in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
Then we’re off into a mutinous medley of interpersonal and inter-generational fireworks. Brigid’s dad, long known around Scranton as the good-natured maintenance man at a Catholic school, struggles to conceal how deeply dismayed he is by nearly everything: the shabby apartment, the state of his two daughters’ lives, the surprising mess he’s made of his own. His wife is the play’s chief source of comedy and a classic character type, the aggressively cheerful smother-mother. She brings Brigid a statuette of the Virgin Mary as a housewarming gift; we hear repeatedly of the weird inspirational messages she’s been blitzing out to both daughters’ social-media accounts …
The Ghosts, the Verdict
One can detect some traces of cliché in The Humans. And one can detect the Ghosts of Theater Past appearing as well. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a 1949 play about a failed father and his two failing sons; here the young men are switched out for young women and we’ve got the Decline of a Maintenance Man. (Nobody dies this time. Sorry for the spoiler.)
In another sense, The Humans echoes plays that are tragicomic ensemble pieces—about odd characters put together in situations laced with humor but leading to heartbreak. Anton Chekhov was an early-modern master of the form, though his characters muddled through the maze of life in a quite different kind of middle class, in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that after writing The Humans, Stephen Karam wrote the screenplay for an upcoming film adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull.
And this, perhaps, is where the eye of the beholder becomes a factor. Someone who loves The Humans, as most New York critics did when it ran there, will see all of the play’s assorted threads—the personal quirks and predicaments, the social statements, the eerie thumping and Momo’s howling, the multiple influences and allusions—being woven together into a powerful, moving masterpiece.
Someone who thinks the play is worth a recommendation but not a place in the pantheon, as my theater friend and I did, will see loose ends, gratuitous touches, and some characters and themes that aren’t fully developed, due maybe to the playwright trying to pack too many shillelaghs into one Thanksgiving dinner.
Irony of ironies: We went to The Humans expecting to see a superbly written play and hoping the production would be equal to it. We came out with the opposite verdict—a tremendous performance by The Public of an interesting but flawed script.
Did I say “worth a recommendation”? Yeah. See the conventional holiday shows if you want. For a juicier lowdown on the holiday mood, try The Humans.
Closing Credits and Ticket Info
Stephen Karam’s The Humans is directed for Pittsburgh Public Theater by Pamela Berlin. She must have done great work, because the acting is excellent. Through December 10 at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District. For showtimes and tickets, visit The Public on the web or call 412-316-1600.
Photos by Michael Henninger.
Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and editor, covers theater for Entertainment Central.