Stephen Karam’s Broadway hit about a family at the mercy of the market resonates in London too
Here’s is the dilemma about Donald Trump. The stage in America and Britain abhors him but finds him strangely hard to nail down. More than most of the enemies on “the Right” (a widely elastic category in the mind of writers and directors), he is mercurial, disturbing and such a parody of property-magnate-gone-bonkers that their arrows often fall short of the mark. He’s far more appalling than anything they could dream up.
A “nightmarish comedy” about Donald Trump is set to be staged by the ambitious Rupert Goold at the Almeida in Islington next year. Let us pause a moment to imagine a play about the great Shrek in Islington that was not pre-billed as a nightmare. Shipwreck is written by Anne Washburn, who gave us Mr Burns at the Almeida a few years ago. (I reviewed it for Standpoint on the grounds that there are not that many dramas that focus on re-enactments of The Simpsons and the end of the world all in one sitting, so I might as well catch it.)
Washburn is an American writer with a talent for making the odd seem normal and the everyday very weird indeed. So let’s let’s see how she fares with The Donald. According to Goold, Washburn “wants to understand people who voted for Trump and to give them a voice”. It is telling that the theatre today feels compelled to announce as something extraordinary the task of giving the groundlings a say. Even Shakespeare managed that in Coriolanus, which is as much about misguided populism as it is about an elitist leader.
While we wait for Shipwreck to dock, a competent play that deals with the economic circumstances that brought Trump to power is Stephen Karam’s The Humans, transferred from Broadway acclaim to the Hampstead Theatre (until October 13). I wrote about its debut in New York, since when this black comedy about an ordinarily dysfunctional family at the sharp end of market economics has been garlanded with a Tony award and a never-ending tour of America’s (progressive) cities.
The Blake clan are together for Thanksgiving in a badly-adapted cheap duplex in New York. The host is chirpy daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele, who played Eli Gold’s uppity millennial daughter Marissa in The Good Wife) who has just moved to New York’s Chinatown with her slightly snitty boyfriend. David Zinn’s set design deserves its own applause here — we’ve all lived in or had to see our offspring in a flat which is really a horror but that we have to pretend to have selected because nothing else can be afforded.
Such is the central metaphor of The Humans. As the anxious father Erik (Reed Birney) puts it: “Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?” It’s such a well-written line, partly because it is so vernacular, but also because it cuts through so much anguish about lower middle-class circumstances.
Jayne Houdyshell plays Deidre: loving, cloying, needy, disapproving — an ageing mother, in short. Broadway audiences cheer when Houdyshell appears, she’s such an accomplished board-treader and a large (literally, given that she plays obesity so well) part of the reason The Humans won its laurels — think America’s Alison Steadman. She encapsulates a generation brought up with the American Dream from FDR to the Kennedys and Clinton/Obama — now adrift with uncertain pensions, sexual mores she can barely grasp in the agony of a jilted lesbian daughter — and the torment of watching her grown-up children struggle with debt.
I’m generally sceptical about the cultural pessimists’ view that we are in the end of days in what are still, warts and all, prosperous democracies. But the sense of middle-class disappointment in The Humans will strike many as familiar in their own families. One friend I sent along texted that it was “all a bit too much like home”: a dementia-ridden granny, fretful parents and her worries about how her own children would ever afford a flat. Yet that is how work connects to audiences — through the feeling that we are bit-players in the same drama.
Karam should have left it there, but he layers on some PTSD after 9/11 and overly convenient household ghosts, who seem to have wandered in from a Conor McPherson saga. I guess the point is that the insecurity after the terror attacks had an economic effect, which in turn created the crash of 2007/8. But there are enough loose links in all that to keep the whole of a Davos conference in introspection.
We really don’t need the extra angst to identify with a story that tell us through personal trauma that there is something very wrong with the distribution of capitalism’s goods and opportunities. Donald Trump is the most sickly symptom of all this — but so is the rise of a hard Left ignorant of history and prescribing quack medicine for society’s ills. Someone should write a play about that. But it’s not the way that commissioned playwrights think — so they won’t.