Drama Review – The Humans by Stephen Karam

All those dreading Thanksgiving dinner with relatives should be thankful they’re not spending it with the Blake family. Stephen Karam presented readers the opportunity to sit in on this dysfunctional household’s holiday celebration in this 2016 Tony Award winner for best play: The Humans.

Due to the way this family presented themselves, several times I had to refer back to the title to clarify that I was reading about people. The Humans originated from Richard’s recollection of a sci-fi comic book he read as a child. In it the monsters told scary stories to each other. While Earthlings prefer to tell horrific accounts regarding monsters, these creatures frightened each other by telling tales about humans. After reading this play, I wouldn’t be surprised if this abnormal Blake family Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t among them.

The playwright constructed this piece brilliantly. He managed to translate normal patterns of speech and conversation to the page better than any I’d ever read. In the opening notes, Mr. Karam explained that the “/” in the text signified that the character with the next line of dialog began his/her speech at that point. This caused characters to interrupt and speak over one another quite often. With the nature of the conversations this made the discussions very believable.

I always look for non-verbal communication whenever I review a play. I liked how this playwright gave actors plenty of opportunities to exhibit their skills on the stage. Any dialog he bracketed by the symbols “[ ]” meant that the performer would express that line non-verbally. Here an example that would challenge any thespian:

Dierdre: Anything I say makes her [annoyed]… (Page 56)

This one is rather difficult as well.

Brigid: Ahhh….[will we make it through dinner?] Page 63

I’d like the opportunity to watch someone try and animate this line.

Erik: …coupla nights I’ve had this [recurring dream]…there’ll be a woman… Page 74

Mr. Karam also utilized this device to add tension to the narrative. Here are some fantastic examples.

Richard: What?

Erik: …[no, nothing important] Page 41

And

Erik: (Smiling, to Brigid) [Man you’re a piece of work.] Page 55

Here’s an exchange following Deidre’s comment about trying to maintain her diet during the holidays.

Brigid: Especially if you eat a bucket of ranch dip before dinner.

Aimee: [Don’t say stuff like that…] (Page 95)

The animosity expressed between Brigid and Aimee enhanced the subtext. Here’s another superb instance.

Aimee: (to Brigid) [Why are you being such a bitch?] (Page 99)

Towards the end of the play, Erik delivered the line that best summed up the narrative.

Erik: Hey, sorry this was…[a total fucking nightmare]…(Erik goes to embrace Deirdre.) (Page 139)

As one can guess from the examples cited, a lot of hostility flowed beneath the surface at this holiday meal. Mr. Karam’s inclusion of quirky characters struggling with both external and internal conflicts enhanced the stress. In the process of losing her job while failing to cope with her soul mate’s breaking-up with her, Aimee’s ulceritic colitis flared up at dinner. Her sister Brigid recently realized that her life’s sole professional ambition was about to elude her. Their grandmother “Momo” Blake’s progressive dementia rendered her more rambling and incoherent. Their parents, Erik and Deirdre, struggled with some underlying difficulties of their own. Brigid’s boyfriend Richard, twelve years her senior at the age of 38, provided the outsider’s view of this family.

With all this drama within the drama, The Humans would seem like a very difficult work to read. The playwright’s skillful dialog and clever insertions of humor at the right times made it readable. I found the play very interesting, entertaining and difficult to put down. Part of the latter may have been an interest in seeing the magnitude of the impending “train wreck.” To be fair to the author: he penned a very engaging and well-written work for the stage.

Mr. Karam added some excellent lyrical passages to the text. The most memorable included:

Erik: (To Brigid who is still angry with him.) Hey, hey. I don’t want to see you bent outta shape over something you can fix. / The Blakes bounce back, that’s what we do. (Page 110)

I thought it clever how Brigid cut Eric off when he reached the part about the “Blakes bouncing back.”

Richard: I got to reboot my life. It was good…

Erik: I dunno. Doing life twice seems like the only thing worse than doing it once. (Page 113)

While these quotes reflected negativity, the author did include a somewhat positive observation. It’s a line that would apply to anyone in pursuit of a dream. Here’s Erik’s sound advice to Brigid.

Erik: -you’re lucky to have a passion to pursue, if you don’t care about it enough to push through this setback you should quit and do something else… (Page 109)

As Thanksgiving approaches I’m sure some readers are dreading sharing the table with someone (s)he doesn’t like. I’d advise such people to read The Humans beforehand just to understand the situation could be much, much worse. For those interested in exceptional drama, this play is a phenomenal read. Those not anxious about the upcoming holiday may want to wait until after Thanksgiving to peruse it, though. The writing made the play so realistic it could cause sensitive readers to lose their appetites.

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