… it wasn’t meant to be this way …

Just after World War II, Frank Sinatra filmed and recorded an inspiring song, “The House I Live In,” an expansive, optimistic view of America.  In The Humans, the dwelling that is America has been reduced to a dumpy apartment.

And it’s no longer owned, it’s a rental – and the rent goes to the Chinese landlords.

In keeping with the theme of America, The Humans is set on Thanksgiving, that most American holiday. But it’s not your cozy Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving, Freedom From Want – going back to Rockwell’s famous Saturday Evening Post cover of 1943.

This American family, the Blakes, has gathered to celebrate in the apartment Brigid Blake and her boyfriend Richard have just rented in New York City’s Chinatown.  A new apartment, a new beginning, it’s an auspicious moment.  Only the apartment is shoddy, old and oddly patched together.

Brigid’s parents have come in from New Jersey, the mother, Deirdre, complete with sweet potato casserole and a table size statue of the Virgin Mary for the new place and the father, Erik, loaded with good advice.  They make some pointed remarks about the dump of an apartment their daughter’s moved into and the neighborhood but they back off — nobody wants a ruckus.

The family is rounded out with Aimee, Brigid’s older sister who from the first seems on edge, and the grandmother, “Momo,” who has Alzheimer’s disease and is in a wheelchair.  They’re aiming for good behavior – after all, it’s Thanksgiving, and on one level The Humans moves along with the bounce and humor of a well written sit-com, fun to watch with plenty of intra-family banter, digs at well-known foibles and loving warmth

The apartment seems like a character in the play too – rendered in David Zinn’s brilliant set.  This apartment was never meant to be the way it is:  it’s been jerry-rigged out of disparate spaces on two floors, so nothing’s where you’d expect.  The more the Blakes move around it, the less we like it.   You can bet that Erik, a skilled maintenance man, finds plenty not to like about it either.  The downstairs — living-dining room and kitchen — feels like the windowless basement it is.

The bedroom upstairs, with an adjoining bathroom, looks out on a cigarette-strewn alley.  As of now there’s no furniture – few places to sit, the toilet paper hasn’t been loaded in the bathroom. It’s particularly disturbing that at unexpected moments, something of heavy metal falls onto the ceiling of the upper room, landing a shock of loud noise on  everyone.  Brigid and Richard say their inscrutable Chinese landlords will do nothing about it.   It’s pretty uncomfortable for an auspicious moment.

We’re in the Thanksgiving phase of let’s get dinner going, with setting-the-table busy-work, amusing jokes and a blend of familial love and “humorous” back-biting. Amidst the chatter, we notice early on that Aimee is distressed.  We learn that she is suffering raw heartbreak over the recent break-up with her girlfriend.  She goes upstairs (awkwardly on spiral staircase between the two floors)  to make a last-ditch, humiliating fruitless call in private to the lost love, and also for the bathroom since she has severe colitis, an illness that caused her – or so she feels – to lose her job as an attorney.

Aimee’s burden of loss seems to isolate her from the rest of her family, until we learn more.

As the new tableware is set and dinner begins, amidst the banter, keen disappointments emerge.  Through the brave chit-chat, we learn, in a gradual unfolding, that all of these humans have suffered heart-rending losses.  Like Brigid and Richard making the best of their spacious shabby apartment, bragging about their “duplex,” they all do their best to hide, cope with or manage severe personal griefs.  They are valiant, touchingly so.  Even Aimee shakes off her misery enough to join them at the table.  Still, we come more and more to understand that the image of normalcy they try to preserve is undercut by underlying sadness and despair.

The individual dramas are intensely interesting  — you can hardly hear the audience breathing — and the fully drawn personalities come to life through the superb acting of the cast and Joe Mantello’s canny directing.   And beyond the sum of its characters, the play gains power from a subtle, significant symbolic structure that links the personal lives and disappointments with our nation itself.

In The Humans, the purple mountains have lost their majesty.  Spaciousness, like Brigid and Richard’s apartment, is a left-over.  A generation ago the Blake family, buying in to the American dream, moved from a low-class city neighborhood to their own home in the country — well, let’s make that the suburbs.  Now, although Erik and Deirdre dished out what sounded like house-proud disdain for Brigid and Richard’s grubby place, that was sheer nostalgia.  It was fake.  They don’t have a house anymore.  Erik  had advanced from manual maintenance to a managerial position but, through his own crucial misstep, his inability to resist temptation, he lost his job and pension.  Well, he’s “only human.”  But we’re all only human, so where does that leave our hopes for American dream?

Now he and Deirdre are making do in a small apartment, back where they started.

Another bang from above.  You never know when the bone-shaking impact of something huge falling from above will hit again, keeping us mindful that here in Chinatown we’re near the World Trade Tower site where, it turns out, the Blake family had a close call.

In this powerful play, the theme of thwarted aspirations — of individuals and of our nation – weaves between private lives and large events.  Love is lost, virtue falters, talent disappoints, forget about security, although courage in the face of hardship, and fresh starts offer some hope.  The connection between the trajectory of the individuals and of our nation is understated and felt rather than noticed while one is watching the play.  It’s there to haunt the imagination after.

The Humans first opened off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theater and, with its brilliant cast, moved to Broadway.  Erik is played by Reed Birney, Aimee by Cassie Beck, Brigid by Sarah Steele, Deirdre by Jayne Houdyshell, “Momo” by Lauren Klein and Richard by Arian Moayed.

The Humans plays at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on West 45th Street in Manhattan through mid-January 1917.  For more information and tickets, click here.