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Theatre in Review: The Humans (Roundabout Theatre Company/Laura Pels Theatre)

Cassie Beck, Arian Moayed, Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Sarah Steele. Photo: Joan Marcus

The playwright Stephen Karam is gifted with remarkable depth of vision; nothing his characters do is lost on him. Even the tiniest interactions among the family members convened for his drama The Humans reveal the vast differences in perception that separate them. Even better, Karam uses these revelatory moments to build a portrait of Americans coping with vanishing resources and disappearing dreams. The Humans takes place during a Thanksgiving dinner, but make no mistake: This celebratory event is marked by lengthening shadows and a pervasive sadness -- not to mention a bombshell announcement that will shake this clan to its roots.

The Humans is especially acute at isolating the tiny, yet permanent, fault lines that can appear when working-class parents get together with their better-educated, independent-minded children. Brigid Blake, having moved in with her boyfriend, Richard, is thrilled to have landed a duplex apartment in Chinatown: So what if the pipes rattle, the laundry room hums, the fuses aren't reliable, and there are strange thumping noises emerging from the apartment upstairs? Each of these flaws is noted by Brigid's parents, Erik and Deirdre, who have arrived from their home in Scranton with the air of tourists unhappily stranded in a foreign land. Looking out the window, Deirdre says, "It's an alley full of cigarette butts." "It's an interior courtyard," explains Brigid, impatiently. Brigid also hesitates to complain about the noisy neighbor, noting that she is 70. "Well, Brigid, I'm 61 -- older people can still process information," says Deirdre.

Brigid, used to these parental wet-blanket techniques, has a quiet, but powerful, counterpunching method of her own. Reacting to Richard's warning that the neighborhood was a flood zone during Hurricane Sandy, she angrily notes, "It's not like you gave me any money to help me out." Then again, she is in need of self-defense: When she comments that her parents don't understand the burden of her student debt, Erik comments, "Well, I do know who refused to go to a state school." Beneath the fairly placid surface of a family holiday, all sorts of resentments and dissatisfactions lurk perilously near the surface.

One reason for Erik and Deirdre's pessimism is that they are just getting by -- he works as an equipment manager in a Catholic school, she has a low-paying secretarial job, and together they care for Fiona, aka "Momo," Erik's mother, who has senile dementia. It's a heavy load, but they remain rooted in their sense of place and their Catholic faith. Neither is happy that Brigid has moved to New York -- a city that Erik experienced in one of its worst moments (not to be revealed here) -- or that her sister, Aimee, has an apartment in Philadelphia; they are especially unhappy that both daughters have abandoned their religion and that Brigid has no plans to marry Richard.

And yet, if Erik and Deirdre remain permanently baffled by children who prefer big-city life, eschew blueberry doughnuts in favor of chard salads, and don't particularly welcome as a housewarming gift a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the younger generation is dealing with a crippling array of disappointments as well. Aimee has split with her longtime female partner, has lost her job as a corporate lawyer, and struggles with ulcerative colitis; she is contemplating surgery that may alleviate her symptoms but will also destroy her sense of herself as an attractive, sensual woman. And Brigid, a musician and aspiring composer, juggles bartending jobs just to get by. As Erik says, in a moment of supreme frustration, "Doncha think it should cost less to be alive?"

Under the supremely observant direction of Joe Mantello, one of the season's finest ensembles illuminates the complex web of love, dependency, and resentment that binds the Blakes as they struggle to come to terms with an age of ever-shrinking expectations. (It is to the author's credit that he works both 9/11 and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire into his narrative with no apparent effort.) Reed Birney expands his astonishing gallery of recent performances as Erik, who finds himself lost in a profoundly changed world -- "You put your faith in juice-cleansing or yoga, but you won't try church," he tells his daughters -- and increasingly angry about it. Cassie Beck's Aimee is barely holding herself together -- a quiet phone call to her ex-partner provides the evening's most heartbreaking moment -- but she is also capable of giving as good as she gets. When Erik dismisses the news that Richard once struggled with mental illness, saying, "In our family, we don't have that kind of depression," Aimee replies, "No, we just have a lot of stoic sadness."

Jayne Houdyshell's Deirdre can't help irritating her daughters, whether staunchly defending her reliance on the Blessed Virgin -- "I know you guys don't believe, but she's appearing everywhere now, not just in Fatima but in West Virginia" -- or casting a gimlet eye on some of Brigid's healthier holiday dishes. Sarah Steele's Brigid ricochets between a warmly generous manner and expressions of rage, snappishly telling her mother to stop talking with her mouth full. Lauren Klein's Momo is a harrowing study in physical and mental decline, especially when she appears to have a lucid moment, which slips away as quickly as it appears. Arian Moayed is appealing as the supremely tactful Richard, who comes from far more privileged circumstances, which makes him an object of suspicion for Erik and Deirdre. When he admits to having a small trust fund that comes due when he is forty, Erik says with quiet fury, "But do you get how that sounds to a sixty-year-old man?"

The Humans also contains a slipperier, but equally intriguing, spiritual dimension. Karam makes clear how the Blakes are held together by bonds of authentic love; enacting a family Thanksgiving ritual, each of them expresses gratefulness for what they have. It climaxes with a stunning passage in which Erik reads an email sent to the girls by Momo before her illness took over. But, almost cruelly, this is followed by Erik delivering a revelation so devastating that it stands to blow the family apart. Suddenly, a number of smaller incidents, involving strange noises and failing electrical service, seemingly indicate a larger, more profound encroaching sense of darkness. In the final moments, writing and direction combine to persuasively suggest that Erik is entering into a dark night of the soul.

The Humans relies for its success on a strong sense of location and David Zinn's two-level setting -- a ground floor and basement -- is exactly the kind of fixer-upper to spark envy in many a Manhattan apartment dweller, while leaving others distinctly unimpressed by its shoddy appointments. Sarah Laux's costumes neatly contrast Brigid and Aimee's more au courant casual wear with Deirdre's unflattering pants and flowered tops; she gets a similar contrast between Richard's up-to-the-minute look and Erik's careless, almost unkempt, appearance. Fitz Patton's sound design surrounds the action with a universe of not-entirely-explained effects. Justin Townsend's lighting is totally solid.

The Humans is anything but doctrinaire in its study of generational and class conflicts. For one thing, Erik and Deirdre, for all their devotion to the church, are apparently totally supportive of Aimee's sexual orientation. In this play, it's the accumulation of such nuances that provide its extraordinary reality. If this is the best American family drama since August: Osage County, its method is quieter, sadder, and subtler than Tracy Letts' blackly humorous exercises in domestic combat. But just as August: Osage County reflected the sour, hungover feeling of the latter years of the Bush Administration, The Humans speaks powerfully to the current moment, in which economic recovery has done little or nothing for unprivileged Americans who believed that if they worked hard and played by the rules all would be well. Faced with such bleak options, the Blakes sense that all they have is each other; by the end of The Humans, it isn't clear that they even have that. -- David Barbour

(2 November 2015)

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