The Humans
Citadel Theatre, Shoctor Stage
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
January 6 to 27, 2018

Theatre review by GRAHAM HICKS,

What is all the fuss about?  

Why is a yet another cliche-filled play about yet another dysfunctional American family considered to have been 2016's hottest Broadway property, winning every award in the book?

The Humans, having its Canadian premiere at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre January 6 to 27, is about as American soured-apple pie as it gets.

Rebellious aspiring musician younger daughter Brigid, currently bartending, is living in a dingy two-floor apartment with her boyfriend in New York City's Chinatown.

Ambitious older daughter Aimee is about to be fired from her  law firm, mainly because her medical problems are eating into her billing hours.  And her girlfriend has broken up with her.

Mom and Dad, Deirdre and Erik, are devout but liberal-minded Catholics, on good terms with the daughters but still nagging them about going to church and the virtues of a church marriage, which ain't gonna happen. As the show progresses, it turns out they have their problems too.

Momo is the dementia-riddled gramma (beautifully played by veteran Citadel actor Maralyn Ryan) being cared for at home by the parents. Momo, once an anchor of the family, is four years gone from this world. She occasionally wakes from her stupor to speak unintelligibly or to have minor emotional outbreaks.

At the younger daughter's invitation, mom, dad, Momo and older daughter have driven to New York City to spend American Thanksgiving with Brigid and the new boyfriend.

So opens The Humans. And it doesn't go much further.

The failure of this show has nothing to do with a good group of actors (and off-stage technicians) ably directed by guest director Jackie Maxwell.  They do the best they can with what they've been given.

Which isn't much.

The Humans can't decide if it's a comedy, a gentle tragedy, or a psychological thriller.

 It wanders about picking elements here and there from those genres, but never pulls it all together, never makes any strong statement about the human condition, never gives the audience any reason for a serious emotional reaction.

The Humans is a puzzler, not a thriller.  

We get that poppa Erik is overwhelmed with financial and emotional problems.  But he's doing okay, he and mom Deirdre, assisted by their faith, are getting through their issues.  Momo's a huge handful, but is loved and taken care of at their home - not that they can afford to place her in any kind of institutional care. 

The kids may laugh at Erik and Deirdre, what grown-up children don't laugh at the foibles of their parents, but everybody is genuinely affectionate with each other, even if three hours is about enough family interaction at this point in the children's young adult lives.

So why is poppa Erik wandering around in the dark at the play's sputtering finale?  Is this a metaphoric breakdown, are all the weird noises about to unleash a monster in the closet? No, the show peters out and the audience isn't sure if the play is over, or what's going on.

Why doesn't this play do something, go somewhere?  

And if that's its point - that we all lead complex and sometimes unsatisfying lives, even within relatively stable families that do love one another, and that life goes on through the emotional peaks and valleys, even if there's sometimes more valleys than peaks - that point in this play is without finesse, without clarity, without definitiveness. 

One possible explanation is playwright Stephen Karam has attempted to create a play about a typical middle-class family, with family situations and family dynamics that are relatively believable.

I once had a lively discussion with a playwright whose characters were always hilariously or chillingly off the dial.  Why couldn't he write, I asked, about the problems and lives of every-day people - not psychos or sex addicts?

"Because it would be boring," he replied.

And, ultimately, The Humans is a tad boring. 
As mentioned above, family psycho-dramas are an over-worked vein of forever self-absorbed American playwrights.  Some are brilliant - the great dramas of the '50s capped by Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf, the hilariously biting contemporary August: Osage Country. But most of the others -Disgraced, Other Desert Cities, Clybourne Park, Next to Normal, God of Carnage -  trod well-worn predictable screwed-up family themes.

Sorry, but I'll take something like the superbly refreshing Hadestown any day as a lively illustration of award-winning American performance art over yet another aren't-we-screwed-up American family drama.