Hey! Stephen Karam! ‘The Parting Glass’ is a parting song! ‘The Humans’ review

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How it’s New York: “The Humans” debuted at The Roundabout, one of New York’s best resident theatres, and is now on Broadway.
THE_HUMANS_-_Sarah_Steele_and_Cassie_Beck._Photo_by_Brigitte_Lacombe

Sarah Steele and Cassie Beck in a scene from THE HUMANS. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

How it’s Irish: The family in the play are Irish-American.

Cultural appropriation. It’s not cool.

Stephen Karam’s play “The Humans” is the toast of the season: virtually everybody has raved about it. Charles Isherwood of “The New York Times” wrote that it is:

Written with a fresh-feeling blend of documentarylike naturalism and theatrical daring, and directed with consummate skill by Joe Mantello, Mr. Karam’s comedy-drama depicts the way we live now with a precision and compassion unmatched by any play I’ve seen in recent years.

Well, it is Arthur Miller’s centenary this year. Maybe you should reread “Death of a Salesman.”

So I’m going out on a shaky limb here when I say this play is boring, predictable, and fake. It rewrites “The Parting Glass” to further Karam’s thematic agenda.

If a playwright rewrote a Hispanic or Asian song to do that we’d be hearing about it. It’s not OK to do it to an Irish song. It just isn’t.

Seen the Tullamore Dew commercial? That’s the proper tempo for the song.

General Martin Dempsey sang it at his retirement last year. His tempo was more of a march. But it is not a cheer-us-up ditty. (I’ve embedded these and a few others at the end of this post).

Stephen Karam changes the line with the title of the song! He changes “bring to me the parting glass” to “lay down your fears.”

The play is about fear. That’s what we call heavy-handed.

Despite what Isherwood writes, the play isn’t “documentary-like,” at least, not a good documentary. It’s documentary the way the Soviet newspaper “Pravda” was documentary. And it sure as hell isn’t a nice well-made play, because well-made plays are generally not boring.

Sitting through “The Humans” is like being at someone else’s Thanksgiving dinner while they rehash family fears and jokes. A not very interesting family.

Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Arian Moayed, Sarah Steele, Cassie Beck in a scene from THE HUMANS. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Arian Moayed, Sarah Steele, Cassie Beck in a scene from THE HUMANS. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

The plot is simple enough:

A family gather on Thanksgiving, at the younger daughter Bridgid’s (Sarah Steele’s) new flat that she shares with her trust-fund boyfriend Rich (Arian Moayed). Disappointments emerge from nearly every character’s life– Brigid reveals a favorite professor has given her a damnably lukewarm recommendation; her older sister Aimee (Cassie Beck) is not only dealing with the loss of a long-term relationship; she is also no longer on the partner track, and she’s facing a colostomy bag– and the last 10 minutes have a “creepy haunted house” vibe as the father, Erik (Reed Birney) who we’ve learned has been fired for an immorality clause from his Catholic high school (perhaps wanting that story is why they are Irish-American) is stuck alone in the apartment and there are scary noises. Erik and his wife, Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) have also brought Erik’s senile mother, Momo (Lauren Klein) to the meal.

The title of the play comes from the thought that to aliens, scifi terror films and stories would have human beings as the monsters.

So the play is all about exploring fear.

It is true that Karam’s dialogue is so naturalistic-seeming that it borders on hyper-real, at times seeming truly overheard.

But, a couple of things here. As anyone who’s ever read a court transcript knows, “real” dialogue is not intrinsically interesting. It meanders; it’s full of interruptions, false starts, ums and ahs.

The young daughter tries to convince her family that juicing is good and eats “superfoods.” (Cliché). The Irish Catholic mother brings statues of the Virgin Mary. (Cliché).

The playwright tips his hand on how much he’s constructing and pushing the characters around rather early on. Readers of this ‘zine will know when. It’s when he has the Blake family sing “The Parting Glass.”

They sing it together in a jolly way. Double time. Early on.

Yep, you read that right.

Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of the song:

The Parting Glass” is an Irish traditional song, often sung at the end of a gathering of friends. It was purportedly the most popular parting song sung in Scotland before Robert Burns wrote “Auld Lang Syne“.[1] The song is also hugely popular in Ireland and amongst Irish communities.

What I can’t forgive?

Changing the words to suit the playwright’s agenda.

Instead of “so fill to me the parting glass

Good luck and joy be with you all”

he line that references the play’s freaking TITLE for pity’s sake–

Karam has the characters sing “Lay down your fears and raise your glass.”

What I can’t forgive?

That no dramaturg stopped him. That no critic caught it.

And  “Just Another Tune” gives a pretty comprehensive overview of the song and its many different versions, some that replace “glass” with ‘Kiss.” NONE of them include the words “lay down your fears.

LAY DOWN YOUR FEARS???

THE_HUMANS_-_Sarah_Steele_and_Reed_Birney._Photo_by_Brigitte_Lacombe

Sarah Steele and Reed Birney in a scene from THE HUMANS. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

So far as I know there isn’t one single  Irish song that has those words. I mentioned it to an Irish singer friend who laughed and said,

“It makes us sound like sissies.”

I asked Irish music scholars if there were some version of the song that had that line, because, as we all know, folk songs do vary.

All said nope. None. And it’s never sung jauntily.

It’s the final song of the evening. It used to conclude Brian Conway’s session at Dunne’s.

I googled it. In my little critic’s notebook I had jotted down, “that’s bizarre.” and “odd lyrics.”

The only reference I could find was to a review of the play itself. “Lay down your fears” just isn’t a phrase that sits well in the Irish song idiom. It’s not that Irish people never have fears, but it just wouldn’t be expressed that way. I’d add English and Scottish and Welsh to the mix too. Hell, “lay down your fears” doesn’t sound like a folk song, period.

Michelle Woods, our books editor, and I have sometimes bemoaned the fate of modern editing. I have seen in some books by major writers, ridiculous editorial lapses– whole paragraphs repeated. A name changing mysteriously to another name and back again.

Clearly Karam wanted an Irish song of dread, and could ‘t find one. But as I wrote above, it’s wrong to overpraise the play merely because it addresses dread. The big plot point is that the father has lost his job.

I have at last count seven versions of “The Parting Glass” in my iTunes. They are all in a pensive, slow mood, a quiet mood. Not melancholy, but thoughtful, resigned. I think my favorite is still Liam Clancy, who used to end concerts with it. Cara Dillon’s is also lovely.

So well known is this song, sung at a particular tempo, that Tullamore Dew uses it to set the mood:

 

Of course, the joke is that we realize at the end they are not pallbearers at all. They are toasting to “my brother Jerry”– who we learn at the end of the commercial is one of the four lads, about to go in and tie the knot with his lovely bride. And the saddest one, wearing a rose, smiles, leaps up ad bows to them before going in.

That’s how well known the song is as a sad, funeral, last one sort of piece. It’s a joke to reverse it.

But to misuse it as if it’s not used that way, and never acknowledge it? Not funny.

As for dread middle-aged people facing in an uncertain future is not something new. We’re in an Arthur Miller year this year in New York; not only are “Incident at Vichy” and “A View from the Bridge” both appeared in the city this year, the former at Signature Theatre and the latter the production helmed by Ivo Von Hove, not to mention a terrific production of “Death of a Salesman” in Yiddish, produced by New Yiddish Rep (there were supertitles. I don’t speak the language; although I did get zei gezunt, pop— so long, dad).

And “The Crucible,” also directed by Von Hove, featuring Irish actors Saoirse Ronan and Ciaran Hinds, will open soon.

I just saw Robert Wilson’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” at Peak Performances. Samuel Beckett was also a master of regret, if not exactly dread. Karam should not be overpraised for taking a second to consider that people over 50 have feelings.

I also couldn’t for the life of me understand why people were taking a car service to Scranton, which is hours away (121 miles!),

Maybe he’s new to New York?

It’s not the actors’ fault. Steele, who specializes in snarky-yet-appealing daughters (she plays one on “The Good Wife,” too; and she played one in Donald Margulies‘ “The Country House” last year) does the best she can as the obnoxious younger daughter. Houdyshell, as always, cracks you up with her over-the-top emotions and sudden bits of deadpan humor. Of the Virgin Mary, she says,

“I know you guys don’t believe, but she’s appearing everywhere these days.”

And there is a nice moment when Momo sings along at dinner, which rings true– people with dementia can often sing lyrics perfectly.

In the last few minutes, when Rich is alone with his fears (yep) in the apartment, it is scary, and it’s lovely ow we see the mindgames we can play on ourselves.

I’d have bought it in a one-act play. It’s not a long play, but I checked my watch often.

The poignant silent scene isn’t enough to justify the meandering piece, nor excuse the damage to “The Parting Glass.”

Of all the money that e’er I spent
I’ve spent it in good company
And all the harm that ever I did
Alas it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all

If I had money enough to spend
And leisure to sit awhile
There is a fair maid in the town
That sorely has my heart beguiled
Her rosy cheeks and ruby lips
I own she has my heart enthralled
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all

Oh, all the comrades that e’er I had
They’re sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e’er I had
They’d wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be with you all

 

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Copyright 2016 New York Irish Arts

Comments

  1. Michael Mitsch says:

    I enjoyed this review. It made me think. Also, I’ve been thinking of bringing it back to my repertoire after an absence of 5 years. Such a great ballad , glad someone stood up for it.

    • Michael Mitsch says:

      However, I must share this caveat. In the final verse I usually sing that the sweethearts “wish me one more *night* to stay”