'The Humans' Takes A Hard Look At The Age Of Economic Anxiety

Richard Thomas, Therese Plaehn, Pamela Reed, Lauren Klein, Daisy Eagan, Luis Vega in "The Humans." (Courtesy Julieta Cervantes/Boch Center)
Richard Thomas, Therese Plaehn, Pamela Reed, Lauren Klein, Daisy Eagan, Luis Vega in "The Humans." (Courtesy Julieta Cervantes/Boch Center)

Once more, with feeling.

To describe playwright Stephen Karam's much-celebrated play "The Humans" is to list a series of well-worn theatrical tropes. It's the intergenerational story of a family assembling for Thanksgiving. The get-together starts brightly but grows ever more fraught, as ancient grudges are revived in that ritualistic way that is as essential to the meal as the turkey. Eventually somebody unveils a dark secret that lands like a punch.

Yet Karam breathes life into this seemingly exhausted genre. For one thing, the playwright's eye for detail is laser-sharp. The first thing you notice is that the interior geography of each of the six people at this holiday get-together is carefully mapped. Then you realize how precisely Karam has set his story, in both time and place. And consider yourself particularly fortunate if you don't relate personally to the 21st century American dread that is omnipresent.

"The Humans," which won the Tony Award for best play in 2016 and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is a bona fide social-realist drama that's popular enough to go on national tour. That itself is something to celebrate. Boch Center has brought that tour to the Shubert Theatre, where the show plays through March 25.

Therese Plaehn and Daisy Eagan. (Courtesy Julieta Cervantes/Boch Center)
Therese Plaehn and Daisy Eagan as sisters in "The Humans." (Courtesy Julieta Cervantes/Boch Center)

The Blakes are an Irish-American family, most recently of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Erik (Richard Thomas) is the dad, fussing about the apartment's maintenance needs and sneaking out to check a football score. He's worked for nearly 30 years as a beloved fix-it guy at a private school. Deirdre (Pamela Reed) is the mom, dependably reminding one daughter of the benefits of marriage. She's toiled for decades as an office administrator, where newcomers fresh from college earn many times her salary.

They have two daughters; the youngest is the holiday host. That's Brigid (Daisy Eagan), a struggling musician, who has just moved into this apartment in New York's Chinatown with her older boyfriend, Richard (Luis Vega). He's pursuing a master's degree but will gain access to "a small trust fund" when he turns 40 in a few years. Her older sister, Aimee (Therese Plaehn), is a lawyer in Philadelphia who has been alerted she is "no longer on the partner track," a demotion she thinks is tied to her absences for a chronic health problem. Also present is Erik's mom, known as Momo (Lauren Klein), who has ever-worsening dementia.

In the age of Trump ("The Humans" premiered in 2015), it's tricky business to stare unblinking, as this play does, at the very real economic anxiety experienced by families like the Blakes without sentimentalizing it or seeming to imply, as did so many post-election thinkpieces, that this demographic's problems are unique and of special consequence. One might think that a play about a bunch of white people talking about their problems in a New York apartment would run counter to the desire in today's theater world to move on from that overly familiar territory — and, sure it does, but only in a doctrinaire sense. (Given the specificity of every character's name, it's fair to think the playwright views Richard Saad as a person of color.) Karam, a Lebanese-American from Scranton himself, leaves enough clues to indicate that the Blakes' ethnicity is an artistic choice and not merely the default setting of a familiar formula.

As economically struggling New Yorkers, Brigid and Richard live in a sort of Bizarro World where their basement apartment's dearth of windows and presence in a flood zone are touted as advantages, since they make the place undesirable enough to be affordable. Money is a constant concern for almost everyone, not least because Momo is getting to the point where she'd benefit from living in a nursing home. Erik sums it all up with grim pithiness: "Don'tcha think it should cost less to be alive?"

If Aimee's law degree shields her to an extent, she's still subject to an American corporate ethos in which she's expected to respond to work emails on Thanksgiving and illness makes an employee — particularly a female one — less valuable.

Karem's eye for detail comes up again in the naturalist dialogue, with alternating doses of humor and workaday despair. Traditional Irish toasts and other holiday traditions evoke a vividly realized family dynamic. It feels almost like this play was written by an anthropologist of the current moment.

David Zinn's carefully detailed set is a big plus — its two levels successfully reflect a sense of grime but also of the potential that its inhabitants force see in it. Justin Townsend's lighting design effectively communicates a plot device as well as a theme, as the lights start to go out on this family, one by one. Director Joe Mantello gets wonderfully natural performances from the actors playing the Blakes. Luis Vegas never sounds quite at home in the text, something that's amplified because he's surrounded by such convincing performances.

The cast of "The Humans." (Courtesy Julieta Cervantes/Boch Center)
The cast of "The Humans." (Courtesy Julieta Cervantes/Boch Center)

"The Humans" casts an unsparing eye on the reality of an economy in which the inflation-adjusted purchasing power of most workers' paychecks has not budged in decades, while an ever-smaller sliver of the super-rich enjoy exponential expansion of wealth. But it does so with such rigor, you might call it bleak.

Erik is haunted not only by a long-ago trauma but by a subconscious realization that it's a struggle to hold onto your own humanity. I could have used a glimpse of transcendence, even if thwarted. But I left the theater with a reminder that even darkness offers no place to hide from the monster that's coming for us all.

"The Humans" is at the Shubert Theatre through March 25. The ARTery's critic-at-large Ed Siegel will moderate a talkback after the show on Tuesday, March 20.

Headshot of Jeremy D. Goodwin

Jeremy D. Goodwin Contributor, The ARTery
Jeremy D. Goodwin was a writer and critic for WBUR's The ARTery.



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