On Saturday night I went to see The Humans at the Seattle Rep. It was not good. Most of it was stale and predictable - though the ending was exceptional. But let me start at the beginning.
Erik and Deidre Blake leave their Scranton home and visit Manhattan to spend Thanksgiving with their young daughter, Brigid, and her boyfriend, Richard. With them is Momo, Brigid’s Alzheimers-ridden, wheelchair-bound grandmother, who does little more than mutter incoherently and shriek when things get bad. Also joining them is Aimee, the Blake’s second daughter, a lesbian lawyer recently separated from her partner and suffering from colitis.
Over the course of the play we learn that each character’s life is coming apart. Erik has been fired from his job teaching at a Scranton high school. Deidre’s knees are giving out. Brigid, an aspiring composer, has been black-balled by her former music professor. Richard is coping with a history of mental illness and Aimee is being forced out at her law firm and needs to have her intestines surgically removed. Thank God there isn’t a dog in this play or the poor thing would soon find itself at the pound.
Written by Stephen Karam and directed by Joe Mantello, this play is actually a comedy and there are some genuinely funny moments in it, but I feel like I’ve been here before. A group of people gather. There is lots of small talk (Karam is very good at capturing the rhythms and feel of real speech). The older folks say funny, out-of-touch things; the young ones says funny, narcissistic things; but no character breaks free from the gravity well of their respective clichés. After many drinks, people begin to confess to things - an affair, a hospitalization, a close call on 9/11, etc. - which are meant, I suppose, to shock us or surprise us or move us or be big revelations to us.
It is all very formulaic. Within the first ten minutes I had a good idea of everything that would unfold in this play and I was rarely let down. When the father confesses to his daughters that he’s been fired from his job at a Catholic High School I immediately went through a drop-down menu of clichéd reasons: a) because he’s secretly gay, b) because he hit a kid, c) because he hit a kid who’s gay, d) because he stole from the school to pay for Momo’s medical bills, etc. When I found out that it was merely because he had an extra-marital affair which violated the morality clause of his employment contract I was, frankly, a little disappointed. I was hoping for a fresher cliché.
Nevertheless, Karam is capable of creating powerful theater (spoilers ahead). The title of the play comes from Richard, who talks about a work of science fiction in which ugly, freakish aliens regard the humans as objects of fear and horror. Later on, Erik, the father, mentions that he is plagued by a recurrent dream in which a young woman has her back to him. When she turns her head to him, he sees that the skin has been pulled down over her eyes and mouth. It’s a horrifying image and once uttered hovers (or, rather, lurks, á la H.P. Lovecraft) over the rest of the play. At the end of the drama it is night and Erik is alone on stage. The lights in the apartment, which have been flickering on and off all day, suddenly go out, leaving Erik in the dark with only a weak lantern to help him. The sounds in the building - a washing machine, the people in the apartment upstairs - take on a new shape. He is terrified and so are we. Is the faceless girl around the corner? Will the aliens appear and the play be flipped Twilight Zone style? Is the reality we’ve seen real? Erik is paralyzed with fear, and so are we. It was great. I loved it.
So it’s a mixed bag with this play (ah, look who’s dishing out the clichés now?). What is not a mixed bag, though, is the quality of the cast, which includes Richard Thomas (yes, that Richard Thomas), Pamela Reed, Daisy Eagan, Lauren Klein, Theresa Plaehn, and Luis Vega. All of them are superb. David Zinn’s two-level set enriches the dramatic action. Light and sound are effectively characters in this play so a special shout-out is in order for the excellent work of Justin Townsend and Fitz Patton, their respective designers.