Catholics in Chinatown

In Stephen Karam's Tony Award-winning The Humans, the distance between Scranton, PA and New York City is measured in more than miles.

In The Humans, when three generations (plus one significant other) meet for Thanksgiving dinner, more than just turkey and stuffing get dished up. Writer Stephen Karam added a twist that elevates his play above the average comedy-drama about family. Due in part to its originality, The Humans received the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play, among numerous other honors, as well as astonishing critical acclaim.

“The play is rackingly funny even as it pummels the heart and scars the bejesus out of you,” said Jesse Green in Vulture. In the Chicago Tribune, Chris Jones called it, “truly remarkable and exceptionally moving.”

Millenials vs. Boomers

Karam’s premise starts out simply enough. For the Thanksgiving holiday, Deirdre and Erik Blake, along with his mother (called Momo), drive from Scranton, PA to their daughter’s new apartment in Lower Manhattan. Brigid, 26, and her boyfriend, Richard Saad, have just started living together. Rounding out the party is Brigid’s older sister, Aimee, a lawyer who has come for Philadelphia.

There is great humor in the older folk’s inability to understand Brigid’s decision to live near a fish market in Chinatown, a few blocks from where the Twin Towers were destroyed, and in the flood zone of Hurricane Sandy. Especially since Momo, now stricken with dementia and confined to a wheelchair, worked so hard to escape the New York tenement lifestyle.

Brigid, however, is thrilled with their shabby two-level space: a ground floor and basement connected by a spiral staircase. What she’s not happy about is having to work two bartending jobs because she’s unable to support herself as a musician and composer.

As the play progresses, each of the characters reveal their problems and the ways they cope. Old-school Catholic Deirdre doesn’t like that Brigid and Richard are unmarried, so she’s brought a statue of the Virgin Mary to bless their domestic situation. Erik is down about money, but he considers his Catholic faith “a kind of natural anti-depressant.”

Aimee, who was recently dumped be her girlfriend, suffers from colitis, but her frequent trips to the bathroom become hilarious when her mother offers to help. Richard, who jokes that his wealthy family’s holidays are “sponsored by Klonopin,” enjoys the Blake’s customs and comforts with each other.

Between bites of the Thanksgiving meal and bitingly funny conversations, eerie things take place in the apartment: thuds, stomping, rumbles, shadows, lights going out. Are these part and parcel of life in contemporary New York, or is something else going on here?

From Scranton to Broadway

“I was trying to write about fears I’m very familiar with,” said Karam, 37, who grew up in a large family in Scranton. While The Humans is not directly autobiographical, he admits that he pulled from his own experiences. “Where you spend the first 18 years of your life is always going to be the biggest part of you,” he said.

Karam has told interviewers that although he was not exposed to a lot of culture as a child, his Scranton school did take field trips to New York to see big Broadway shows such as Phantom of the Opera. He developed an interest in reading plays and later attended Brown University, where he began to write his own works for the stage.

After graduating, Karam moved to New York City and worked as a legal assistant while continuing to write. The Roundabout Theatre Company became his artistic home, producing his plays Speech & Debate in 2007 and Sons of a Prophet, which was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. The Humans had its first New York production at The Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre Off-Broadway. Producer Scott Rudin was then instrumental in moving the play to Broadway in 2016, where it took home the Tony Award for Best Play.

There is a lot that’s great in The Humans, but for Karam one theme dominates: “It is entirely about a family that ferociously loves each other,” he said. Which makes the play a perfect addition to any Thanksgiving celebration.