We’re always leaving or returning. Sometimes we’re hiding. And so much of that belongs to where we live – to the creaking floorboards, to the groans of the buildings we pause in for months or years. There’s space to be alone, or left, or brought together. Our houses and apartments are an extension of us and a fingerprint of our wider world. Their rooms are where memories linger or burst out.
This is something that Stephen Karam’s new play captures beautifully, insinuating the bleed between place and person into the cracks of a strained family Thanksgiving dinner in Brigid and her boyfriend Richard’s new duplex on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Brigid’s parents, Deirdre and Erik, are present, and have arrived with her sister, Aimee, and her dementia-stricken grandmother, ‘Momo’.
Karam effortlessly nails the brittle prickle of well-meant family reunions – of the generational friction of lives colliding over clung-to holiday traditions. From Brigid’s knee-jerk hushing of Deidre for fear she’ll be embarrassing, to her parents’ persistent doom-mongering about the safety of her neighbourhood, it rings uncomfortably true. Religion, superfoods and expensive candles are casual ammunition.
But it’s more thoughtful and forlorn than just being an acutely observed dissection of family foibles. From Aimee’s phone call with her ex-girlfriend – mumbled fragments of quiet misery delivered with aching sadness by Cassie Beck – to Deidre’s hurt as her children snigger with Richard about the emailed quotes and articles she sends them, there’s real loneliness. David Zinn’s extraordinary split-level set brings home their mutual isolation, as characters lurk or linger upstairs.
Joe Mantello’s staging builds like a ghost story, from mysterious clanging upstairs to Erik’s dreams of a woman with skin covering her eyes and mouth. And as the upstairs lights fail, you wait for monsters. But the show uses such familiar tropes to explore an idea briefly raised by Richard in his loving recollection of a comic book from his childhood in which, if you looked under a monster’s bed, you’d find humans.
Everyone on stage has their demons and their secrets, many of which – if distilled – would sound formulaic. There’s even a backstory about 9/11. But these roll out so organically, and are given life by the brilliantly natural cast, that they tumble rather than thud. Each character has a place in their past where they don’t want to look. And it’s as small and important as Erik crying at a table in the dark room, while his family wait for the car home.
Mantello finds the silences surrounding the script’s humour, broadening what is a sharply funny portrait of New York City’s housing market, its state of shabby flux and the histories of its neighbourhoods, into something bigger. In ‘Momo’s disconsolate moaning about never being able to go back is a life-history shedding away – of doors closing. In the end, for all of the love we express for each other, however clumsy and complicated, everything gets left behind.