Thursday, December 14, 2017

“The Humans” is a darkly funny slice of life

The cast of The Humans (Julieta Cervantes)
The Humans
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through December 17, 2017

Stephen Karam has filled his 2016 Tony-award-winning Best Play, The Humans, with a lot of human darkness, which then allows for some darkly funny commentary. The play, starting a national tour at Seattle Repertory Theatre, has a power-house cast (Richard Thomas, Pamela Reed, Daisy Egan, Lauren Klein, Therese Plaehn, Luis Vega) portraying an uneasy Thanksgiving family gathering.

In a somewhat stereotypical way, the family has: issues that complicate the holiday, secrets that get revealed, and sets of disappointed hopes and dreams of individuals. In less stereotypical ways, the family has: the oldest member suffering severe dementia that is dealt with in a loving way, a younger family member with gastrointestinal issues that will best resolve through surgery that results in an ileostomy – and some plain speaking about it, and a married couple as the sandwich generation who are in difficult financial straits.

Brigid Blake (Eagan) and her newish boyfriend, Richard (Vega) are hosting this Thanksgiving in their newly-moved-into basement apartment in New York City. Parents Erik (Thomas) and Dierdre (Reed) and sister Aimee (Plaehn) arrive with “Momo” (Klein), the grandmother who “has good days and bad days” and today is not a great day.

The apartment is an unusual two-story arrangement, and lightbulbs keep popping out. Luckily, there is an (unseen) elevator to allow Momo to be transported up and down the floors. Though the couple has just moved in, there is enough furnished to keep everyone comfortable.

Slice of Life plays are difficult. “Nothing” often happens, except a lot of talking and exchanges of information. Exposition can be awkward. Here, the fact that Richard barely knows the family allows for them to introduce topics to him and to the audience in a more natural way. The engagement is in the conversations and the revelations. As each character relates to each additional character, the history of the family deepens.

Klein was the original Momo on Broadway, and is masterful in a difficult role. Dementia is not often seen on stage, though I’ll venture a guess that in coming years, playwrights will write more about these types of folks as playwrights age and write more about “what they know.”

Reed is an engaging combination of caustic and compassionate, harried and exhausted. She gets a lot of the fun zingers, though is the lynchpin of the family. She relates well with Thomas. They make a good team, as parents.

Plaehn is quite believable as a young woman with a chronic intestinal disease, struggling to maintain the feeling that she will be attractive to future companions with a hole in her abdomen. The fact that she is a lesbian is quite beside the point here, as most plays are becoming less and less focused on needing to make sexual identity stand out as a family “issue.”

Eagen and Vega make a good couple, with Vega working hard to connect to the family and show his devotion to his new relationship. Their interaction is sweet and evenhanded, as power dynamics go.

The parents have the most to manage. They are the sandwich generation here, trying to keep Momo at home, which is almost too exhausting, and stay in the parental mode for their daughters. But their situation is far more vulnerable than the kids know, and the bulk of the secrets are theirs.

However, just as the big secrets come out, the van arrives to take the family home. There is no time at all to absorb and understand the implications of the changes in circumstances, or problem solve or decide anything. In that sense, it’s a brisk 95 or so minutes and then done.

That may allow for the difficulties to discomfit the audience less, but it doesn’t really allow us to see how this particular family decides anything of real note. Just at the point where we know enough about how they function to want to see them work together, the lights go out entirely.

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