An immaculately acted new American play in the Eisenhower Theater? Really? Yup, really. The Kennedy Center interrupts its regular program — which these days mostly means touring musicals — to bring you this important special event: “The Humans,” Stephen Karam’s wry, wise and deeply moving drama about a Pennsylvania family and the disappointments hovering over their Thanksgiving dinner in a Lower Manhattan apartment.
The play rolls out a carpet of compassion for the Blakes, who are bound by that comfortable kind of love that makes room for a big sister’s needling and a younger daughter’s compulsion to correct and a churchgoing mother’s insistence on Virgin Mary statues as housewarming gifts. In a pair of gorgeous performances by Richard Thomas and Pamela Reed, the elder Blakes are so determined to sanctify togetherness that they take superhuman pains to transport from Scranton the disoriented Fiona “Momo” Blake (Lauren Klein), the grandmother who is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and really should have round-the-clock nursing.
But the Blakes are struggling financially — America’s broken promise to the hard-working middle class is one of the motifs here — and so Thomas’s stoic Erik and Reed’s hyper-maternal Deirdre accept the burden as their lot. Reconciling oneself to the hand one has been dealt is another of the play’s recurring notions. To this point: Everyone at the makeshift feast, in the spacious, shabby flat of younger daughter Brigid Blake (Daisy Eagan) and boyfriend Richard Saad (Luis Vega), bears the weight of past troubles, of breakdowns, failures and transgressions — a collective haunting that at several unsettling intervals of the 95-minute play makes an all-too-eerily direct impact.
What distinguishes this work, which ran for nearly a year on Broadway and won the 2016 best-play Tony Award, from so many other good stories of family unhappiness, is the exquisiteness of the portraiture, the unerring accuracy of the humor and even the beautifully thought-out choreography of the characters moving about set designer David Zinn’s cavernous duplex apartment. It’s a different sort of holiday ballet: the trips up the precarious winding staircase to the bathroom; the stolen kisses in the kitchen; the solitary pain of a cellphone call to an ex-lover; the silhouette in a basement hallway of a mysterious neighbor.
Director Joe Mantello, who models the touring production closely on the Broadway version that collected a total of four Tonys, effectively uses a beehive template to invigorate the evening; there’s always something else going on wherever you look. The approach aids in providing full dimensionality to all six characters. Even if you would never have any reason to acknowledge these people before, you know them all, if not by sight, then certainly by what they’ve put up with, what’s familiar to them in the world, and what’s frightening, and how they react, after an upsetting secret is disclosed that destroys the illusion of all for one and one for all.
Reed, picking up the role of Everymom where the wonderful Jayne Houdyshell left off on Broadway, proves an ideal successor. It’s a performance of such unvarnished honesty, a portrait of a woman who survives by not getting her hopes up — and not letting anyone see how that might be a difficult way to go on.
Thomas, succeeding Reed Birney, who like Houdyshell was Tony-honored, is remarkable here conveying the unremarkableness of Erik, a man brought up to be a rock who cracked when presented with the most important test a husband and father faces. Eagan, Vega and Therese Plaehn, as older daughter Aimee, all add rewarding depth to this array of finely etched portrayals. And Klein, the sole actor reprising her Broadway performance, pulls off the astonishing feat of evoking the last vestiges of a whole human being. The moment Deirdre reads the years-old email from Momo that Erik has saved is one of bona fide heartbreak.
Momo’s robust voice of yore is another form of haunting, in a play that reminds us how thick with meaning is every phrase and gesture in the company of people we know best. An audience, laughing at all those familiar signals the Blakes send out, knows it, too. Now, it’s up to the rest of you, to come out and see a play of real accomplishment and make the Kennedy Center aware that you’re willing to pay for more of this kind of vigorously intelligent fare.
The Humans, by Stephen Karam. Directed by Joe Mantello. About 95 minutes. $49-$139. Set, David Zinn; costumes, Sarah Laux; lighting, Justin Townsend; sound, Fitz Patton. Through Jan. 28 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. kennedy-center.org. 202-467-4600.