The Humans is like Death of a Salesman (with more laughs, plus the potential of monsters)

At Thanksgiving dinner, the character Aimee lets her family have it in The Humans.

Aimee (Briana Buckmaster) lets her family have it in The Humans. (Photo by David Cooper)

The Humans is the real thing. Scripts like this are why I go to the theatre.

Playwright Stephen Karam starts with a standard set-up: the Blake family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner. Young-adult daughter Brigid has just moved into an apartment in New York’s Chinatown with her older partner Richard. Brigid’s parents, Erik and Deirdre, have driven in from Scranton and they’ve brought Erik’s mom, Momo, who has advanced dementia. Brigid’s sister, Aimee, a lawyer, has arrived from Philadelphia.

The moving van hasn’t come yet with Brigid and Richard’s belongings, so their new place is looking pretty grim. Even though it’s on two levels, the lower level is a windowless basement. The top floor has one window, which looks out onto what Deirdre describes as “an alley full of cigarette butts”, although Brigid prefers to call it “an interior courtyard.”

The Humans starts off like a dark sitcom. Deirdre’s daughters are tired of their mom’s endless communications, for instance: “You don’t have to text every time a lesbian kills herself.” But there’s a pugnacious affection within the family that keeps things buoyant. Relatively.

There’s also a distinct whiff of horror in The Humans. One of the best things about director Amiel Gladstone’s production is David Mesiha’s expressionistic sound design. An old woman lives upstairs from Brigid and Richard and there are such deafening thuds emanating from her apartment that it sounds like she’s hurling dead bodies onto the floor up there.

This sense of horror, of dread, deepens in a script that is essentially about the collapse of America—as seen from the perspective of a middle-class family. As an Irish immigrant, Momo used to work in a sweatshop near Brigid’s new address. Momo escaped to Pennsylvania, but Brigid has returned to New York, where she is failing as an artist and staggering under student debt. Aimee, who was living a shiny life as a lawyer, has been fired because she has ulcerative colitis. And none of the old strategies are holding things together anymore. Deidre gives Brigid a statue of the Virgin Mary as a housewarming gift: as a compromise, Brigid agrees to put it in a drawer somewhere.

Through comedy, compassion, and well-placed doses of Fright Night, Karam keeps things entertaining.

The artists associated with this Arts Club production serve the script well. Kevin McNulty is heartbreakingly lost as Erik, the one-time lynchpin of his clan. With his halting, naturalistic delivery, McNulty finds a surprising amount of comedy in lines like, “Don’t you think life should be less costly?” Briana Buckmaster is also completely credible as prickly, lonely Aimee. And, without grandstanding, Nicola Lipman nails both the humour and the pathos in Deirdre. That said, Lipman is oddly cast: both Deirdre and other characters make a fuss about Deidre’s weight and the fact that she eats her feelings, but Lipman has all the heft of a sparrow.

Gina Stockdale inhabits Momo without sentimentality and the results are terrifying: her fate awaits many of us. And Parm Soor does solid service as the unctuous Richard. Watching Samantha Rose Richard play Brigid on opening night, I wanted her to settle into her character’s skin a little more, to project a little less, and find a clearer bead on the mix of Brigid’s pushiness and vulnerability.

It takes a while before the central crisis in The Humans is even hinted at, but the play is always formally interesting in its mix of styles, its incomplete sentences, and its multiple focuses and revelations.

Nearing the end of the script’s 90 minutes, I was so undone by its underlying spookiness that I wouldn’t have been surprised if Godzilla had made an entrance. And, as I left the theatre, I was thoroughly satisfied. It’s not often that you come across a play that is so stylistically innovative, thematically ambitious, and entertaining.

If Death of a Salesman is about the collapse of the American dream in the middle of the last century, The Humans is about American despair right now.

THE HUMANS by Stephen Karam. Directed by Amiel Gladstone. An Arts Club Theatre production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, March 28. Continues until April 22.

Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Comments

  1. Thanks Colin. I’m going now.

  2. Saw this play tonight… amazing! Kevin was extraordinary and felt like I was sitting on a time bomb – wow! Appreciated your review as always. Ann Coombs

  3. Alas on April 11th Samantha Rose Richard was still projecting loudly compared to the rest of the cast!

  4. Rachima Stewart says:

    Looking forward to going tonight! Thanks for the encouraging review…. now I am excited!

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