Comedy and Dread Haunt “The Humans” in Lower Manhattan

Review:  The Humans

By Perry Tannenbaum

Richard Thomas made his first appearance on Broadway in the late ‘50s, when he was still six years old, and he’s still in the biz 60 years later, touring with The Humans. These days, Thomas appears as one of the elders in Stephen Karam’s portrait of the Blake family, nothing at all like the paragon he once was starring as John-Boy Walton back in the ‘70s. Here he is crotchety, embittered, careworn, a bit paunchy, and – as we learn late in this 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner – disgraced.

Joining Erik on a Thanksgiving visit to their daughter Brigid’s Manhattan apartment is his wife Deirdre, his elder daughter Aimee, and his wheelchair-bound mother, “Momo” Blake. All of the visitors have their problems. Nobody in the family seems to like the grumpy, nagging, fanatically religious Deidre. Aimee has lost her girlfriend, formerly bright career prospects have slipped from her grasp, and a digestive infection sends her repeatedly to the toilet. “Momo” is stricken with Alzheimer’s, babbling rather than articulate, with a tendency to throw tantrums or wander off unexpectedly.

“Momo” also supplies us with the best affirmation of religion that we’ll see at this Thanksgiving dinner.

Our hosts, Brigid and her boyfriend Richard, actually seem better adjusted than their guests. She’s struggling as a musician, not earning as much as her lawyer sister, but she and Richard have managed to move into a two-story apartment in Chinatown, and he’s expecting a windfall of trust fund money in two years when he turns 40.

Amid the bickering, the joshing, and Deirdre’s irritating nagging about Brigid’s loss of faith and her apartment’s lack of windows and light, there are undercurrents of comedy and dread that would resonate most keenly with New Yorkers. Typical Pennsylvanians, Erik and Deidre have the aversions to living in Manhattan that have made Broadway theatergoers laugh for over a century.

Yet they manage to hit a couple of sore points. Erik recalls driving Aimee up to New York for a job interview on 9/11 and surviving the attack on the Twin Towers by sheer luck. Deidre’s worries about her daughter’s basement apartment flooding referenced an even more recent trauma, the devastation in Lower Manhattan in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Under attack by terrorists and climate change, the end-of-days atmosphere at Brigid’s adopted home is augmented by lightbulbs that go out in her new apartment and jarring, unexplained booms from the floors above.

Thomas captures the whistling-in-the-dark fate of the Blakes best, sensing that you need to work harder at projecting to the balcony at the other end of the shoebox-shaped Knight Theater. Only slightly outdone, Pamela Reed is superbly nettlesome as the mom we love to hate, while her daughters, Daisy Eagan as Brigid and Therese Plaehn as Aimee, are more agreeable but less characterful. Luis Vega as Richard was the only member of the cast who seemed to miss the memo that you need to project more forcefully at the Knight.

Each time Momo startles us, it’s important, yet Lauren Klein orchestrates these eruptions beautifully. Momo’s violent outburst had an unexpected effect on how I saw Erik toward the end. Confessing how he had let his family down, Thomas actually succeeded in making me hate him momentarily despite his 60+ years of stage and TV wholesomeness. But when Momo began flailing, Erik became her firm, patient, and dutiful son – and this John-Boy aspect that Thomas still does so well encouraged me to give Erik a second look. The mysterious ending of Karam’s drama calls forth yet another reconsideration.

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