A few years ago twice Pulitzer-finalist Stephen Karam came across a risible self-help book called Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. It listed the six basic fears all humans have: poverty, criticism, ill health, the loss of someone’s love, old age, death.
In his bitingly funny, bitterly sad 2016 play – a huge Broadway hit with four Tonys to its name – Karam spreads those fears among the six-strong Blake family as they celebrate a mostly thankless Thanksgiving.
Erik and Deirdre have travelled to the duplex apartment their daughter Brigid shares with her older boyfriend Richard. Sister Aimee is there too, as well as grandma Momo, who is suffering from dementia.
From the outset we get a barrage of family life: break-ups and job problems and health issues. Everything suggests a big American family drama, and it’s definitely steeped in that kind of play. But it becomes so much more.
Karam’s writing is astonishingly genre-literate, from kitchen sink grimness to psychological thriller, with side helpings of sitcom, pulling all its referents in different directions to dissect them and build them into something new. Something familiar and not; something uncanny.
Because this thing really does get under the skin. It keeps gesturing towards the supernatural – lights switching off, noises upstairs – without ever quite delivering it.
Most of all, though, it looks at the everyday things that make life difficult. And in this constant push-and-pull between the real problems that keep people up at night and the unreal things that go bump in the night, Karam does a bloody great stock-take of the American middle class.
The writing is full of stunning rhythms with overlaps and cross-talk that seem completely natural. This quality is enhanced by the millisecond precision of Joe Mantello’s direction and by the original Broadway cast, who are as tight and easy with one another as if they were actually family.
Jayne Houdyshell shines as the loving, stoical mother Deirdre, quietly distraught when she overhears her daughters making fun of her, while Reed Birney conveys the quiet desperation of a penniless patriarch trying to keep it together in front of his daughters.
There’s a fantastic moment, too, when Erik and son-in-law Richard (Arian Moayed) find themselves alone together. The constant family yammering stops, as these two struggle to find common ground across class and generation.
David Zinn’s detailed duplex set – mildewy pipes, insulation visible – adds to the sense of the uncanny, and it’s beautifully lit by Justin Townsend, even when the only light is a handheld LED lantern, enlarging the objects on stage into dark shadows, like the great patches of darkness in these characters’ lives.
Karam’s characters all have problems, but they’re not contrived or exaggerated. They’re just the normal, day to day crap of life. That’s what makes the play, despite its killer comic lines and the palpable sense of love between the family members, so overwhelmingly sad. Because cumulatively they represent all the gaping holes in whatever safety blanket the state provides.