A Quiet Political Battle

Playwright Stephen Karam’s newest work “The Humans” runs at the Broadway production’s Steinway Theatre through February 24. The play, currently in its first of eight off-Broadway engagements is set in a small New Jersey apartment during the final days of Thanksgiving weekend.

There are 14 seats in the apartment, most of which are occupied by people with whom we share similarities. These individuals share their deepest fears and values. Together they form the human family. Karam, as the character Patrick notes early on, “has no archetypes.” In the play, Patrick provides some of them, but he doesn’t pull any strings or manipulate the others.

The play is a modern day retelling of Hamlet, as Karam uses past events to place the characters back where they have lived. Time, Karam notes, can be an awful thing; it can take away what used to be. One minute you are together, the next minute someone is in a different place with their own life to live. Maybe, by the same token, you are living in a world where there are far too many choices for you to consciously make; it is overwhelming.

Life can become a continuous loop of years beginning, ending, starting. Times, Patrick says, seem to happen at the speed of light, that we rarely stop and reflect. Patrick and his family experience such rapid changes. He is faced with the understanding that for many of his relationships there are no longer fundamentals to cling to. He is forced to make decisions, make sacrifices, and seek hope, to truly live and love.

A father, Patrick’s wife Rebecca (Emily Skinner) is depressed. She can’t remember which day it was, and does not seem to remember it was thanks to having not been able to read her mother’s lips as they told her to pass this house. Her dark mood threatens to harm her children including baby Henry (Peter Egan), who is just a year old. Rebecca’s sister Annie (Mary Testa) is struggling in finding a job, her son is struggling in school, and she is of a different generation, so it is not unusual for her to miss times of significant accomplishments.

The children’s mother, Joan (Carol Kane) may have some stressful moments in her life; however, Patrick is the one to whom she gives her life back after failing to do so herself.

The play challenges the beliefs we hold and celebrates those beliefs. It is a privilege to be in a theater filled with such interesting people. Those diverse backgrounds and varying experiences give these characters their identities, and allows them to be closer to the person we wish we could be. Each character’s character arc is well-delineated. The small characters provide enough heart and perspective to pull the whole family from their reality.

For the entire play, I found that it felt like Karam was painting a bar of very challenging figurative soap. The characters in the theater all seemed to face a lot of challenges, and everything they feared, was present, in reality. Karam doesn’t patronize the audience; instead, he asks us to examine what we thought we knew and to be less ignorant. There is a subtle question that Karam asks the audience, in regard to the discussion of diversity on the show set, “which is more powerful?”?

Katherine Shea’s set is striking, the line drawings are captivating, while the touches that Patrick makes are elegant. Every artist in the theater must have submitted their drawing for a “golden rose” to have been part of the set.

When I read the book on which the play is based, I was initially distracted. I thought, “Wow. Karam has a vision and maybe he is right.” Instead, I found the play to be frustrating in its repetitive ideas. What I found compelling about Karam’s work is his willingness to challenge his audience. So even though it’s a bit of a slog to get to the finish line, “The Humans” is worth a viewing. It is well worth experiencing a play like this which can be inspirational and inspirational at the same time.

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