Monday, December 11, 2017

Play: The Center Does Not Hold

The Humans by Stephen Karam Directed by Joe Mantello, Seattle Rep through 17 December 2017.

Thanksgiving on Grubb Street has for many years been a "Waifs and Orphans" affair, a term I picked up from Zeb Cook, who did something similar in Lake Geneva eons ago. The Waifs and Orphans Feast was set up for people who can't get back to their families elsewhere for the holidays, but has since turned into an event where friends come in from out of town to join friends in a fine meal. I brine a bird, the lovely bride would supervise the kitchen and dining room, and friends bring sides, deserts, and wine. It's pretty good, and I may have mentioned it before.

So imagine my delight at getting the passive/aggressive thrills of internal family feuding found within a  Thanksgiving with The Humans. yay.

Here's the basic info: On Thanksgiving, Erik (Richard Thomas) and Deirdre (Pamela Reed) are visiting daughter Brigid (Daisy Eagan) in her new, two-level basement apartment in New York's Chinatown, where she lives with her organized boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega). Erik and Deirdre brought with them Erik's mother, Momo (Lauren Klein) who is confined to a wheelchair and suffering from dementia. Also attending is other daughter Aimee (Therese Plaehn), who has broken up with her girlfriend, is losing her job, and has a major medical conditions.

Indeed, medical conditions tend to dominate the table talk, which fits in with a lot of American Family Gatherings these days. Erik's got a bad back, Momo slips in and out of lucidity, Richard has suffered from depression, Deirdre is fighting her weight. Aimee is facing major surgery, which she tells her sister but never gets around to telling her parents. It feels like the characters live in a domain where they can survive, but not thrive. Maybe, but I'm not sure if that's the point of the play.

And the apartment is a precarious place itself, in a quasi-gentrifying chunk of New York's Chinatown, in the flood zone of the rising sea, balanced precariously on a hostile future. The unseen upstairs neighbor drops - things- (which sound like battleship anchors) on the floor above, the washing machine churns loudly, the lights flicker and go out. It is a haunted house of an apartment, its inhabitants reduced to cave-dwelling. But I'm not sure that's the point, either.

I'm not sure what the point is, honestly. I've seen some comments talking about the death of Middle Class as a subject of the play, but I'm not entirely sure about that, either. Perhaps if you think about it as individuals who have been clawing upwards who suddenly realize they are slipping back, losing ground, and finally realize that they are not even going to be able to maintain their previous status and lives. Maybe. It's not clear.

Even the title is a bit of a wash for me. Erik dreams of monsters, and Richard talks about how from a monster's point of view, humans are the monsters. But these humans are not monsters - their crimes are pretty petty for the punishments the universe doles out to them. And the monsters that the humans are facing - death, dementia, pain, poverty, the upstairs neighbors, don't seem to be fearing them at all. So I am hard-pressed to tell you what the play is ABOUT. (OK, it's about 90 minutes long, without an intermission. Bah-DUM-bah).

Parts of the dialogue are witty, poignent, and natural, but they don't seem to support a central cause. The actors are excellent (Thomas, Reed and Klein in particular), but seem a little lost on the stage. The set itself feels like a gimmick for the play, the two-tiered stage allowing characters to move easily out of reach of the others and back again. One thing I've noted about these "Put the characters in the room and don't let anyone leave" type of plays is the No One Ever Leaves - they head for the door, but never seem to reach it. The Humans does not do that, but it feels like we're left with characters hanging out, waiting for someone to re-enter.

So that's where I am. The Tony-Award winner is sort of the thematic tent-pole for the season, which talks about Real, Messy, Human, as bywords for promoting the season. And for this they're right. The Humans is human and very messy and real. But it also doesn't seem to have a center.

More later,