The 70th Tony Awards, presented in June 2016, were an affair to remember in more ways than one. It was the year Hamilton won big. It was the year Cynthia Erivo floored us with this performance from the revival of The Color Purple. (For real, take a moment to watch that performance. I’ll wait.)
It was also the year that an original play by Stephen Karam snuck in a win for Best New Play. The Humans actually had its world premiere in Chicago in 2014, with the American Theater Company. It launched off-Broadway in late September 2015 and migrated to Broadway in January 2016. Rave reviews followed, drawing in crowds and awards. Now, the show is on a national tour, and the Broadway in Chicago stop runs at the Cadillac Palace Theater through February 11.
Which means, if you’re reading this the day it’s published, you have approximately 10 days to see this essential piece of modern American theater. Possibly less. So, what are you waiting for?
Not convinced? Here, let me elaborate…
The Humans takes place on Thanksgiving, when the Blake family has gathered in the Chinatown duplex Brigid Blake (Daisy Eagen) recently moved into with her boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega). Dad Erik (Richard Thomas), mom Deirdre (Pamela Reed) and sister Aimee (Therese Plaehn) are there, as is Momo (Lauren Klein), the girls’ grandmother, who’s all but checked out with advanced Alzheimer’s.
That’s it. That’s the whole play.
What unfolds over the next hour and a half is as genuinely…human…as it gets. Erik and Dee fret over Brigid’s living arrangements (is it safe to be in a basement apartment in downtown Manhattan?). Aimee, still smarting from a recent break-up, admits that she’s also on the verge of losing her job. Richard is back at school, racking up debt and Brigid, a musician, can only find work as a bartender. Momo is having one of her bad days.
At just 90 minutes without an intermission, the entire play is essentially nothing more than an average American Thanksgiving dinner. The conversations bounce from one update to the next, sometimes digging into deeper family dynamics and other times pausing so everyone can catch their breath. They talk over each other and frustrate each other and gang up against each other and laugh with and at each other.
But this isn’t an hour and a half of six people sitting around a table talking. Though there is some of that (and even that isn’t boring), the show maintains a sense of movement thanks to a clever two-story apartment set-up. The cast traipses up and down the stairs countless times, and various scenes play out in different corners of this cross-section of an apartment.
For a script so deliberately average, it is, of course, equally poignant, a quality that elevates the production from a slice-of-life to life-affirming. Just as we meet the Blakes, this Irish-Catholic family insists on cheers-ing to Brigid’s new apartment; they break into a round of “The Parting Glass,” and it is as profound a moment as it is funny, as Karam allows each of his characters to appreciate the moment in their own way. This is the mark of great writing: when each character is unflinchingly distinct, developed in such a way that there’s a seamless consistency to their role in the ecosystem created on stage.
In Karam’s family unit, the roles may be a bit cliché—Erik’s got a bad back and keeps checking the score on the football game; Dee can’t help but wonder aloud when Brigid and Rich will get married—but they’re nonetheless wonderfully drawn, their layers as varied and numerous as any of ours. Indeed, even on a day when there’s much to be grateful for, the Blakes are burdened with the types of woes that keep any of us up at night: money, health, relationships. As we get to know them better, we’re privy to their shortcomings, their struggles and their fears. Dreams become a recurring theme, and though they laugh about what Erik’s must mean, there’s a gravity to the proceedings.
Watching The Humans is very much like watching a character-driven independent film (though please, don’t adapt this play for the screen, that never goes well), where circumstances and setting are secondary to the lives we peek in on for a moment in time. As dinner wraps up, our time as a fly on the wall at this particular family affair, in all its affection and dysfunction, also comes to an end. Which, like any great movie (or play), when the credits roll on such an experience, is a bummer.
The Broadway in Chicago tour of The Humans runs through February 11 at the Cadillac Palace Theater; showtimes and tickets are online here.