BWW Review: THE HUMANS Gets Weird on Multiple Levels at Pittsburgh Public
If you want to discuss mystery, and I think we need to at this point, there are two essential tropes that must be considered. First, we have Chekhov's gun- if a seemingly important thing is brought up, even casually, near the beginning, it will prove to be important by the end. (Case in point: Chekhov introduces a gun early in Hedda Gabler, and somebody gets shot by the end of the evening.) Second, we have the opposite of Chekhov's gun, the red herring- sometimes, a seemingly important thing is brought up, even casually, to divert attention and create misdirection from what is truly important. (Case in point, Sigmund Freud stated that anything longer than it is wide represented a phallic icon, but justified his own smoking by stating "sometimes, a cigar can be just a cigar," not emblematic of anything else.)
Part of the fun of mystery, or of the merely mysterious, is figuring out what is Chekhov's gun and what is a red herring. As a lifelong fan of Twin Peaks, I spent the vast majority of the past eleven years or so debating what was and wasn't important in his increasingly sprawling mythology, and my suspicions were only confirmed or denied last month, when tie-in novel The Final Dossier finally pulled back the curtain on the cosmic revelations and earthly plotting of the genre-bending series. I mention this primarily because Twin Peaks trained me well to get into the nitty-gritty of Stephen Karam's award-winning dramedy The Humans, which gleefully, almost perversely, pummels the barriers between genres into submission and leaves audiences with more to unpack than simply plot or themes. The Humans isn't a mystery in terms of plot, but audiences will be left trying to decipher the clues to one great mystery: "what was that at the end?"
The plot, at surface level, is simple: Brigid Blake (Valeri Mudek) and her slightly older boyfriend Richard Saad (Arash Mokhtar) have just moved into a promising duplex in New York's Chinatown. Brigid's family comes to visit for Thanksgiving: frazzled father Erik (J. Tucker Smith) and religious mother Dierdre (Charlotte Booker), promising attorney and lesbian Aimee (Courtney Balan), and Momo (Cecelia Riddett), the family's matriarch, now riddled with dementia. Their day together goes through predictable ups and downs of the "dysfunctional white family" genre, with money, sexuality, generation gap politics, religion and family secrets coming to the forefront.
That's the surface level.
Here's the rest: SOMETHING unspoken is going on here, and the play is cagey about hinting at what it could be but never getting too close to an answer. There are clues thrown at us: whatever is happening here may or may not involve any combination of prophetic dreams, ghosts, a malevolent apocalyptic power, squatters, religious forces, the descent into madness and despair of one or more main characters, and/or a peppermint pig. This isn't a horror play- but the first two thirds contain more than a few jump scares and "what was that" moments that are genuinely unsettling. And then, the last five minutes... I won't say a word about the last five minutes except that it joins Hedwig and the Angry Inch as "plays whose endings may or may not change literally everything you've seen before, depending on how you view the willfully ambiguous events of the final moments." It's very David Lynchian.
Director Pamela Berlin has done a fantastic job with extremely difficult, knotty material. Her control of actors, text and design forever evades being pigeonholed into, or even resting too comfortably on, any single genre. With most plays, that would be a problem (who wants a Death of a Salesman that doesn't know for sure it's magic-realist tragedy, or a Streetcar that doesn't allow itself to be melodrama?), but if The Humans became a family comedy, a domestic social drama, or a straight-up horror play, something would be lost in translation. Attention must be paid as well to the set and lighting designs by Michael Schweikardt and John Lasiter respectively. They make The Duplex apartment seem aspirational and inviting when it needs to be, unsettling and cold when called for, and utterly alien when all else fails.
The cast has no weak links- this is, after all, the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Arash Mokhtar probably has the easiest role, as Richard is the outsider and voice of reason who is relatively unconnected to the Blake family's various downward spirals. Nonetheless, he projects an aura not of detachment but of cool collection; it's easy to see why Brigid gravitated to him. As Momo, Cecelia Riddett's performance is subtle and understated, allowing her few explosive flare-ups of perseveration and screaming to be genuinely, horror-movie unsettling. Additionally, Dierdre may be a relatively one-note character, but Charlotte Booker plays her sensitively and competently, never allowing her to be a simple "sitcom mom" stereotype- however close Karam's script may hew to that archetypal role.
Valeri Mudek and Courtney Balan function almost as a unit, the two sisters portraying mirrored sides of the same whole person. Mudek maintains optimism in the face of Brigid's artistic failure and dead-end job, yet the stress of her unstable living situation is always under the surface. Simultaneously, Balan wears Aimee's despair, heartbreak and physical suffering on the surface, while her greater reserve of strength and perseverance remains on the underside, only gradually revealed. But the play's most enigmatic character, and most nuanced performance, is Erik, as played by J. Tucker Smith. I have so many questions, and so many observations to make, about this multi-layered figure, but for sake of avoiding spoilers I won't say many of them, save that Smith is left to navigate the bizarre last ten minutes almost on his own, and I was barely breathing as I watched his performance.
If you're not captivated by the show already from reading this, it might not be the show for you. If ambiguity and the uncanny turn you off, maybe Death of a Salesman, which deals with many of the same cultural critiques in a more concrete and traditional form, was more your speed. But now more than ever ("and behold, he did invoke the tired old agitprop cliché phrase in a curiously apolitical setting") the uncanny and the surreal are mainstays of popular culture, from Twin Peaks to Night Vale to Mr. Robot and beyond. Take the time, this Thanksgiving season, to sit down, observe your surroundings, and raise your voice in a hearty "what the hell is going on?"