By Michael Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
When the Blake family gathers for the Thanksgiving holiday in Stephen Karam’s comedy/drama “The Humans,” hearts and peppermint pigs will break.
Parents Erik (J. Tucker Smith) and Deidre (Charlotte Booker) visit their daughter Brigid (Valeri Mudek) and her live-in boyfriend Richard (Arash Mokhtar) in their new apartment in New York City’s Chinatown. They bring their other daughter Aimee (Courtney Balan), Erik’s wheelchair-bound mother, Momo (Cecelia Riddett), cleaning supplies, care packages and plenty of family drama.
Everyone is working through their own problems. Aimee has just broken up with her longtime lover, and contemplating a life-changing surgical procedure on her colon. Brigid receives a misdirected email that rattles her, making her question her career choices. Deidre is losing a battle of the bulge, even though she’s allied with long-time fat-fighters, Weight Watchers. Momo is in the final stages of dementia. But it is the family patriarch, Erik, who is struggling with darkest of secrets.
Richard tries to keep things convivial, desperately clinging to his duties as host, and trying to make a good impression on his girlfriend’s family. It’s an impossible task.
The Blake’s have a rich set of family traditions, including Irish music and the aforementioned peppermint pig ritual, where they go around the room expressing gratitude. Afterward, they smash the candy and eat the pieces.
The play does not follow the usual rules. It’s as if the audience is peeping in on maladjusted family; peering through a window observing them. There is no main character in “The Humans.” It’s an ensemble cast, with each member getting the spotlight, like a feast of side-dishes.
It strays rather far from Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post version of the holiday with bright plastic bowls, paper plates and copious amounts of wine.
Tempers will flare. Brigid and her mom have it out. As mother and daughter fights go – this squabble falls somewhere between the Violet/Barbara Weston blow-out in “August Osage County” and a much funnier skirmish between Eunice Higgins and Thelma Harper from “The Carol Burnett Show.”
A stellar cast makes “The Humans” shine.
Balan and Mudek have the sibling chemistry down. The duo is able to mine the humor from the text without making it sound too hokey or jokey.
Mokhtar ekes out a strong performance from an underwritten character. He gives Richard a nice depth.
Riddett’s performance as Momo is haunting. The character is a constant reminder of death and loss.
Booker is the main reason to see the show. Deidre is a helicopter mom who strafes the charges she was meant to protect. Karam loaded the character up with the best lines.
Director Pam Berlin keeps it moving along deftly, excavating depth from the flimsiest of characters.
Michael Schweikardt’s set is a work of art. It’s a cutaway of the duplex. It’s a giant doll house. Picture Barbie’s Malibu Dream Home with much less pink. He’s backed up by terrific lighting and sound, John Lasiter and Zach More, respectively.
“The Humans” is laugh out loud funny, with poignant glimpses into some deep, dark crevices. It will never be a holiday classic, but it is a welcome change from the traditional holiday fare.
“The Humans” runs until December 10 at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.