Last November and December, television’s Hallmark Channel released and streamed 40 new movies, from “Christmas at Dollywood” to “Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen,” made especially for the holiday season. Next year, there probably will be 40 more. Holiday shows are definitely a thing.
True too in the theatre, with a wide range between A Doll’s House and Annie plus all the takes on A Christmas Carol. But playwrights also offer a sub-genre of despair in which hopelessly negative groups of families and friends gather to wrangle and wound. Sometimes, there’s an autobiographical avatar who slips away afterwards in relief at being liberated from such wells of negativity.
The San Diego Repertory Theatre has one such play –Stephen Karam’s The Humans – on display right now except, believe me, nobody escapes unscathed. Including the audience.
There are only five characters – or six, if you count the grandmother off in the mists of dementia – but the list of miseries seems to stretch into the dozens while glimmers of hope tend to get squashed the moment they glisten.
It’s Thanksgiving in Manhattan and the scene is an aged Chinatown tenement building on the frontiers of gentrification with a two-room over/under apartment separated by a Home Deport spiral staircase poked through the floor-ceiling. The newly-arrived yuppies haven’t decided yet which floor is for living and which for sleeping. In fact, the moving van hasn’t arrived yet … from Queens. So this year’s jolly feast will be on plastic plates.
Thus it seems like we’re setting up for the standard routine of New York apartment humor. Only the subject doesn’t change when the punch lines are delivered. Instead, nagging ensues where we might expect running gags and everybody starts getting testy. With reason, too. The couple isn’t exactly married yet and they don’t go to mass, well, ever, actually. She’s finishing her degree (apparently in music composition) and working multiple waitress jobs to start paying off the debts. He’s doing something in the psychology field and waiting for his trust fund to open. Big Sis antes into the game with serious physical problems and a dead-end law practice, mooning over a girlfriend who’s just left her. And the parents, just in from the ‘burbs and wincing at the mean streets, seem determined to establish their lower-middle-class bona fides.
But more is to come. Much more: Relationship strains. Career setbacks and blockages for all. Ancient arguments, money troubles, over indulgence in this or that… And the building itself seems to be growing weirder with noises and odd neighbors and puzzling crises and…
About the only place to move as this crescendo crests is into some form of chaos. That’s what seems to have been written into the play. But this production just sort of plops into a mound of hopeless self-pity.
Miscasting is not the biggest problem here. These are known actors of some capability. One of them, Rosina Reynolds, is among the city’s best. It could be said that she’s wasted here, mumbling in a wheelchair, but that’s sort of the point of the character and her affliction.
As for the others, I’ll just say they didn’t get much help from the director or the designers.
This is not a smoothly functioning play. When the problems accumulate to the “Jeeze, what’s next” level, some urgency is needed. But there remain opportunities for playing such bedeviled wretches, for showing that somehow, they keep functioning. They go on cruise vacations. They have working credit cards. They’re still moving about upright? How is all that possible?
That’s the main job of the director. And the results suggest that Todd Salovey is somehow himself blocked and frozen. Yes, the script whips recklessly from joy to pain to sarcasm and so forth, but there are ways to deal with this, to pace the pressures and show how these humans somehow continue to deal with them. Either Salovey has not provided such guidance or he has failed to enforce it.
There are opportunities in this play for edging toward the bizarre, for risking incoherence even as the anguish mounts. Instead, this cast tends to lean into the woe like poor beasts caught in a storm.
Giulio Perrone’s set is a misreading of the needs. The place is supposed to be a nightmare but it just seems like two floors of opportunity seeking an imagination that’s all too unlikely present. Old, empty rooms can have enormous character, especially when they’re spoken of as creepy. Not much here.
Elisa Benzoni’s costumes may be accurate but who cares? They read as dull. And how often does a lighting designer get a chance to do spooky? There’s an emergency blackout here, with lots of confusion written in but Chris Rynne just rigs a flash or two and throws a switch. Sound might perk up all of this but Melanie Chen Cole’s design finds the level of the show.
Sorry, I’m just not much interested in these people, especially since they seem unable to adjust the plus sides of their scales. And I’d rather have my angst without the holiday dressing.
If a show must have a November-December gloss, maybe I’d be willing to turn out for something like the drag show recently advertised in Manhattan: Oy Vey in a Manger.
(Continues on the Lyceum Stage downtown weekends through Feb. 2, 2020.)