Blake family values

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Wednesday June 13, 2018
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Stephen Karam carves deep into the dark meat of middle-class America in "The Humans," his Tony Award-winning hybrid of kitchen-sink drama and dream-logic creep show. It's a feast of sharp dialogue, fine acting and subtle stagecraft, but like many a family gathering, it ends with some awkward straggling. Neither Karam nor his characters can quite figure out how to say good night.

At the Orpheum Theatre through Sunday, this intermissionless 100-minute Arthur Miller-cum-chiller finds the Blake family assembling for a makeshift Thanksgiving in the grotty Manhattan apartment that daughter Brigid (Daisy Eagan), an aspiring composer who works shifts as a bartender, and her boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega), a social work grad student, are still in the process of moving into.

In for the evening from their hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, are world-weary father Erik (Richard Thomas, of "The Waltons" fame), frazzled optimist mother Deirdre (Pamela Reed), and wheelchair-bound, dementia-afflicted grandmother Momo (Lauren Kline). And up from Philadelphia, keeping her chin up through incessant bouts of colitis, is older sister Aimee (Therese Plaehn), a lawyer and lesbian who has recently lost both her partner-track job and her romantic partner.

Among a uniformly excellent cast, Thomas and Reed stand out, with wry line readings and reactive facial expressions that lay bare a 46-year marriage's exquisite blend of love and pain.

"Maybe," observes newly single Aimee, musing on her own relationship as well as her parents', "loving someone long-term is more about deciding whether to go through life unhappy alone, or unhappy with someone else."

Whether onstage, on screen, or at the in-laws' place, we've all seen our share of home-for-the-holidays, come-to-Jesus family maelstroms in which affection and resentment get whipped around like cows in a twister. But Karam and director Joe Mantello deliver a particularly well-wrought rendition. Volleys of backhanded compliments and laser-focused condescension beams alternate with upswells of genuine fondness and empathy. That the six cast members are often dispersed around David Zinn's bi-level set makes their rapid overlapping dialogue - and metaphorical inability to hear each other - all the more believable.

The ripped-from-the-headlines issues touched upon over the course of the evening's conversations include health insurance, the 9/11 attacks, mortgage loans, sexual dysfunction, class resentment, and income inequality. It's all probing, often funny, and never pedantic, but still very much within the bounds of stage realism.

What most separates "The Humans" from scores of other family dramas is Karam's eerie overlay of foreboding and malevolence. Fuses blow and lights flicker throughout the dim, shadowy apartment. Sonic booms shake the building, as if echoing the emotional distress that Erik and Aimee experienced on September 11 years before.

Most compelling, yet cryptic, are conversations in which Erik shares details of a recent nightmare - women with eyes, mouths and ears sealed shut by skin - and Richard, a comic book fan, describes a fictional race of "half-alien, half-demon creatures with teeth on their backs." On the creatures' planet, Richard supposes, "The scary stories they tell, they're all about us. The horror stories for the monsters are all about humans."

Karam invites audiences to consider the Blakes' behavior anthropologically, as if - while distinctly written as individuals - his characters should also be read as representative of a part of contemporary American society. The lower half of the two-story set, a basement beneath the surface of the New York streets, evokes both subconscious darkness and an archaeological site. Perhaps, in the distant future, the skeletons from the Blakes' closets will be exhumed as relics, with tales to tell about a dark past.

In the play's last few scenes, yet another family secret is revealed, further efforts at kindness are made, and the Blakes, with all their fearful symmetries of humanity and monstrosity, slowly slip out of the apartment into the darkness of the night. "The Humans" is uncomfortably anti-climactic, offering no sense of closure. Which is to say, it's a sort of realism after all.