Though I have discussed a variety of mediums in this space, I’ve never explored the variety that takes place on stage. I grew up on Broadway shows, believe it or not, my family marking almost every birthday and anniversary with tickets to something new. I’m especially lucky in that I’ve seen so few duds; almost every show I’ve seen wrapped me up in the magic that only an amazing stage performance can provide, starting with Jerry Lewis in Damn Yankees and continuing right through Hamilton, just before it blew up. So when another anniversary rolled around recently and I had a chance to see the new Broadway darling, The Humans, I knew I had to write about it here – especially because its themes relate so much to why I love (or even need) to write Unlife.
If you haven’t heard of it yet, The Humans is Marvel’s newest play, a prequel to their upcoming Inhumans television show, and I would love to keep this joke going, but that is literally all I know about the Inhumans. I prefer my super powered genetic freaks to come from the Xavier mansion. Anyway…
The Humans is a new play by Stephen Karam, in which a family’s Thanksgiving dinner takes place in real time. That’s kind of it, really: the show begins with the family’s arrival, and ends with their departure. But what happens in between is unique, at least in my experience. The show adopts a firmly realistic tone, with people lying, stepping on each other’s lines, even hiding in more secluded areas of the set to get away from each other. Entire conversations happen just to illustrate a relationship dynamic in action. It’s kind of insane to get an outside look at how many little things we take for granted in typical family interactions, and to see it being played back, warts and all. And there are warts.
The major theme of the play is facing the unknown, both in yourself and in the world. More specifically, it’s about how scary it is and how we don’t want to face it, especially when we feel it’s unfair, that there should have been another choice. The characters are all dogged by circumstances outside their control that threaten their most basic concepts of identity and self-worth: medical problems, breakups, failing careers, even certain infamous days in history. With varying degrees of success, they struggle to come to terms with these facts and move forward. Very little actually “happens” in the play, and in fact most of the major plot beats would fit very neatly into one paragraph. But it’s not the plot, but how the play navigates these events, that keeps everything engaging and makes it feel… dramatic, for lack of a better term.
There’s a lot to discuss about who says what, and why, and how, and what it all means, because the tradeoff with realism is that – as in real life – what’s happening underneath only appears in tiny snippets. But in those moments, there’s something very honest, very human. Early in the play, a character jokes about humans being the ones the monsters are afraid of, the first (and maybe only) time that the play uses the term “humans”. But though the mood in the final scene was tense enough for me to clutch my wife for a full 10 minutes, it isn’t remotely a horror or scary story. The tension happens because the play builds a sense of impending doom, of “something” happening. Something awful and chaotic, like an incident in lower Manhattan 16 years ago, or in a downtown clothing factory 90 years before that. That evocative quality makes it all the more special to watch the characters move from start to finish and see what happens when it’s time to go home.
While watching the show, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. Mostly because of that ending. It got me invested, made me care about these characters living their lives. I wanted something good to happen, something to resolve things and even make it all alright. A building nightmare runs under the text of the play, the idea of watching the you that you know slip away, replaced by a stranger. I wanted the characters to face down that challenge and win. And the eventual conclusion hit home. It made my fears feel… normal. And even better, it achieved that through those tiny, significant moments of clarity, more impactful than a third act final battle with aliens could ever be. Instead, we get just a snippet of something greater, the prospect of which is still on the horizon. And I like that.
If you have the chance, definitely check out The Humans. It ain’t no Marvel film, but by God, that’s what makes it great.