Despite an impressive pedigree, there is little that’s flashy about The Humans, the 2016 Tony Award winner for Best Play that opened this week at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre. Written by Stephen Karam with the entire original Broadway cast reprising their roles, the one-act play unfolds over the course of Thanksgiving dinner with a multigenerational family as tensions and secrets are revealed, providing a snapshot of modern, working-class American life many will find relatable.
Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele) has just moved in to a duplex in New York City’s Chinatown with her boyfriend, Richard (Nick Mills). What the space lacks in working lightbulbs, thick walls, and natural light it makes up for in square footage, and Brigid is anxious to show it to her family. Her mother, Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, a Tony Award winner for this role) disapproves of the fact that Brigid and Richard aren’t engaged or married and frets about like a typical mother, complaining that her daughter has yet to open the care package she sent.
Deirdre’s husband, Erik (Reed Birney, also a Tony Award winner for this role) is anxious and acting atypically, partially because he has not been sleeping well recently. A resident of Scranton, Pennsylvania, he dislikes that Brigid has moved to New York because he still harbors traumatic memories from 9/11, when he only avoided being in the World Trade Center because the observation deck was not yet open. That day, he was with his eldest daughter, Aimee (Cassie Beck), who was interviewing in one of the towers, and they were separated for hours, a trauma that has left its mark on the family. Now, Aimee is going through a terrible breakup from her girlfriend, facing losing her job as a lawyer, and struggling with ulcerative colitis—as she puts it, a “banner year.” Deirdre and Erik are also caring for Momo (Lauren Klein), Erik’s mother, who is suffering from dementia and exhibits only increasingly rare flashes of her former self. As for Richard, he is desperate to make a good impression on the family, but the Blakes are a bit baffled by his affinity for superfoods and dream analyzation, openness in talking about his history of depression, and fondness for making lists.
With a running time of an hour and forty minutes, the action is expertly paced despite a relative lack of, well, action. This is simply a Thanksgiving dinner, one in which members of a family who love each other very much but, of course, harbor some resentments attempt to put their issues aside and enjoy a meal. Inevitably, with the help of alcohol, some of these issues rise to the surface, particularly one bombshell that Erik reveals to his daughters after dinner.
Karam’s characters are all remarkably well-drawn, and you almost immediately get a sense of their various personalities and dynamics. To capture decades of a family history in such a short time is no easy feat, and perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Blakes is just how normal they are. The dialogue is quick and sharp, incorporating both biting humor and moments of deep sadness. It is impossible not to connect to at least one of the characters or problems they are facing because it is simply a snapshot of everyday life, even if this particular day will be memorable to this family for a multitude of reasons.
The set (David Zinn, who won a Tony for it) is in many ways the play’s seventh character. Creaky and old, with obnoxious upstairs neighbors whose movements practically cause the entire two stories to shake and roaring trash compactors and laundry machines just down the hallway, there is something eerie about it that fits the theme of the show. A recurring motif is the discussion of dreams and the worries that literally keep people up at night, which Erik and Richard have both been experiencing as of late. Erik’s dreams are perhaps better described as nightmares, a manifestation of current guilt and past trauma. As emotions come to a head, there is a memorable sequence where Birney, who is terrific, is alone on stage, facing his demons in the form of the increasingly spooky apartment.
While it feels hypercritical to poke holes in what is a very smartly drawn and effective story, if there is one issue to raise it is that Erik’s revelation, which is foreshadowed throughout the piece, comes rather late and there is a bit of an unsatisfied desire to see the other family members react more significantly than they get the chance to. But then again, life often happens quietly and without fanfare, even in the big moments, so perhaps the rather subdued response is the point. The Humans is a play that captures a modern family experience that is both specific and universal, and it is a treat to be able to see the talented original cast inhabit these characters they know so well.
The Humans runs at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre through July 29th. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here. Download the TodayTix app to enter a daily lottery to win $25 tickets.