“The Humans” –A Family Thanksgiving for a Fearful Middle Class

 

 

Ticket to "The Humans"It starts as just another family drama on Thanksgiving. But family Thanksgivings can be horrific, chilling celebrative occasions for some of us. “The Humans” written by the Pulitzer Prize finalist Stephen Karam is just that. The aging dad worries about money, one daughter moans about her student debt, the other is heartbroken by her breakup with her lover, the mother’s Catholic values needle both of them: the younger daughter on the benefits of marriage instead of living with her boyfriend and the older daughter’s evil lesbian life. And we can’t forget Granny — called Momo – who has dementia and will probably not survive another Thanksgiving. This Off-Broadway play interweaves wit, tenderness and blistering brutality in the voices of six emotionally and physically damaged family members at the edge of the abyss.

The sixty-year old father and his wife are taking care of his elderly mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Though lower middle class, the parents have managed to provide a law school education for their older daughter and a pre-Ph.D. musical composer in their younger. Autobiographical bile gets ejected from all family members.

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With a two-floor set design where we see at least two characters at the above level secretly engaged in gossip about the family members below, we clearly understand the troubles beneath the surface, the lower level metaphorically representing things unsaid, a family’s dark underbelly. Feelings shift and the upper level is just as unsettling and fractured. Nothing is as it seems. In the final scene the lights go out completely.

“The Humans” has searing emotional scenes — Aimee’s sorrowful phone call with her ex, eavesdropped by her father; a dinner-table reading of an email from Momo, written when she is aware of the early signs of Alzheimer’s; the mother fighting for dignity at her daughter’s belittling of her interest in a scientific article. There’s also comic relief: when Momo sings Irish lyrics in her solitary fog. It’s tremendously moving: the momentary illusion that they can still experience joy as a family.  Karam distinguishes himself in portraying this dysfunctional family.   This family  really is not so different, after all, from any ordinary family with its difficulties and setbacks. With warmth and compassion, even tenderness, the casual cruelty of some of the dialogue is funny, not because the words convey jokes but because the characters are communicating unimpeachable truths.  Cutting through a history of friction, misunderstanding, and support, every facial expression, non-verbal gesture, as well as dialogue, points to how much they need one another or think they do.

These are all themes and subplots I am fascinated with and also explored in my debut novel, Things Unsaid.

Note: The title of this post is taken verbatim from Charles Isherwood’s review of “The Humans”, NYT, Oct. 25, 2015. His title says it all.  “The Humans” moves from Off-Broadway to Broadway in January 2016 with the same cast.  The script is available on Amazon.

“Master of None”—But Loads of Fun

 

Master of None

Could there be any comedic boundaries left following Amy Schumer and Louie CK? The answer is yes! Master of None, in ten half-hour episodes (a Netflix original), we see an extraordinary depiction of New York life created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang (both from “Parks and Recreations”). , I’ve only seen two episodes so far (the series premiered on November 6), and I’m hooked.

Dev (Ansari’s character) is a wannabe actor relegated to trying out for commercials. His friends are also grappling with jobs, love life, and trying not to be losers. In raw yet disarming dialogue, Master of None begins to eviscerate the vision of New York life for a thirty-something single guy of color.

In Episode One Dev and his meet-up, someone he barely knows, are Googling on their cell phones, to learn what to do since his condom broke. So much for the romance of the moment. Impressive in conveying anxiety, lack of experience, and decency, Dev and the girl friend, Rachel (the charming Noel Wells), navigate the awkwardness of the moment with an endearing concern for each other. Nobility of character—in a comedy.

Episode Two raises the question:   Do we ever really know our parents? As immigrants, the parents are even further removed: not only by age but by culture. But this episode is not just another “adult children think their immigrant parents are old codgers from the old country” story. In a touching, but not maudlin, restaurant scene we see, in self-assured writing, the Taiwanese parents’ of Brian, Dev’s friend, connecting with Dev’s Indian parents  (played by Ansari’s father and mother). Dev and Brian are incredulous at seeing this side of their parents.

In a series of flashbacks we see the hardships of the immigrant parents’ childhood contrasted in raw and unsparing scenes with their privileged sons’ New York lifestyle. These scenes are deeply affecting, not only for the first-generation/second generation experience but for how we all, in some way, are strangers to each other. And knowing that Ansari’s parents are playing the roles of Dev’s father and mother makes these scenes even more intimate and moving.

Not only immigration, but race, impacts the two friends’ daily lives. There is no beating around the bush. Ansari is particularly scathing about racial stereotyping.   And turns it on its head. In the first episode, when Dev meets Rachel’s grandmother, he is expecting her to be put off because he is of Indian descent.  She isn’t. When Ansari seems a bit surprised, the grandmother retorts: “You think because I’m an old white lady, I’m racist?!”

And “Master of None” continues being a lot of fun…without sermonizing but without letting us off the hook either.

Now on to Episode Three.

 

 

“Photograph 51”—Rosalind Franklin: Double Helix and Double Crossed

 

Nicole Kidman

Nicole Kidman

The critically acclaimed play, “Photograph 51”, currently in London, and written by Anna Ziegler, exposes the obscurity of a brilliant crystallographer, Rosalind Franklin, who identified the chemical structure needed for understanding the molecular composition of DNA as well as raising the question: Are women still sidelined in the scientific world?

Kidman Photo51Most people familiar with the double helix have probably associated it with Nobel Prize winners Francis Crick and James Watson. The critical scientific role Rosalind Franklin played at King’s College London is still, to a great extent, sadly overlooked.

Photograph 51 refers to the pioneering Xray-diffraction image of the DNA double helix, the elegant result of Franklin’s pioneering crystallography technique. Together with a seminal research paper, Photograph 51 was given by one of her graduate students to Maurice Wilkins, her laboratory supervisor, without her knowledge. Passed on to Watson and Crick who were racing for the Nobel Prize before Johannes Salk (also researching DNA), Franklin’s Photograph 51 was not acknowledged until decades later by other scientists. (She had died four years earlier from ovarian cancer at the age of 37.) None of the Nobel Prize winners paid tribute to Rosalind Franklin’s pioneering work. (Watson was later to portray Franklin negatively in his book on the history of his research, the best-selling The Double Helix, which ironically started a deeper investigation into her contributions.)

Nicole Kidman’s powerful and commanding performance as Rosalind Franklin, avoids stereotypes of a female intellectual without social skills. Rosalind Franklin had a reserved personality, often bristly and uncompromising, which compounded her distance from her colleagues’ sexism, petty academic jealousies, and anti-Semitism. Kidman’s Franklin reveals subtle layers of vulnerability underneath the hostility to colleagues who had promised her a laboratory of her own but relegated her to assisting Wilkins. Later, Wilkins would be the conduit who robbed Franklin of her place in the history of science. Kidman, as Franklin, reveals through her stillness and her posture, her backstory with her parents. She retreats into her own world, a quiet determination to prove her hypothesis about DNA, and the tentativeness of women not to make mistakes or take risks in a male-dominant profession or be sanctioned for life.

Kidman’s performance captures not only the complexities of Franklin’s personality but also luminous intensity as the scientist absorbed by the findings of photograph 51. It is a fine performance, and a subtle one, in which Kidman reminds us that the scientific life can be informed by private passion but at great personal sacrifice. Her gaze both chills and fascinates, radiating and demanding, in a singularly self-possessed presence. At curtain call, I noticed a flick of tears from Kidman’s cheek after a particularly moving finale.

Photograph 51’s stage design sets the tone: a bombed-out Gothic university laboratory evokes a tomb, the death of Franklin’s prospects for scientific recognition. My only complaint is that, given the title and the complex scientific theory, there was not even one projection of photograph 51 on a screen so the audience could see the visual image of Franklin’s ideas.

Note: Kidman is in discussion for a possible Broadway production.