This review of ‘The Humans’ in its premiere New York run at the Laura Pels Theatre was originally published by THR on Oct. 25, 2015.
A few years ago, The Humans would probably have been slapped with the reductive tag of “post-9/11 drama.” That overused descriptor still fits in some ways, not least because two of the characters were in Manhattan’s Financial District on that fateful day. But Stephen Karam’s beautiful, funny-sad and ultimately wrenching portrait of a troubled lower-middle-class Pennsylvania family is so much more than that. Under Joe Mantello’s impeccable direction, and in the hands of an exemplary six-member ensemble, the play builds on the ample promise of Karam’s earlier works, confirming him as a uniquely probing investigator of the contemporary American psyche.
Karam’s breakthrough play, Speech & Debate (currently in the works as a film), brought sardonic insight to adolescent unease, followed by Sons of the Prophet, which found bitter humor in one family’s suffering as the eldest son struggled to distance himself from their traditional faith. While that clan’s accrual of misfortune had deep roots in tragedy, members of the Irish-Catholic Blake family in The Humans are afflicted more by the crippling weight of their fears. Karam and Mantello deftly conjure that burden as a palpable force, dropping disquieting hints of supernatural horror within a setting whose bad energy may just be of the characters’ own making.
The playwright uses the familiar dramatic setup of the Thanksgiving family gathering. But he removes the reassuring factor of home from the equation by putting the characters in the newly occupied Manhattan apartment that acerbic, 26-year-old daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele), an aspiring musician working as a bartender, shares with her late-30s partner, Richard (Arian Moayed), who is pursuing a master’s in social work while waiting for a trust fund to kick in when he hits 40.
The place seems enviable by New York real estate standards — a ground floor and basement Chinatown duplex with a ton of space, designed in scrupulously scuffed detail by David Zinn. But the moving van has been delayed over the holidays, leaving the couple with minimal furniture and a growing awareness of the apartment’s drawbacks. The electrical wiring is temperamental, possibly as a result of flooding during Hurricane Sandy; there’s no natural light; the laundry room and trash compactor emit a bone-chilling drone; a cockroach so large it could be a mouse scuttles by; and periodic deafening thuds from the upstairs neighbor shatter any moments of peace.
Alone on the stage at the beginning and end of the play, and gradually revealed to be its anxious center, is Brigid’s father, Erik (Reed Birney). His vaguely absent air seems due at first to the spotty phone signal and the frustration of trying to hear the football score. But it soon emerges that he has other things on his mind, keeping him awake at night or feeding disturbing dreams when he does sleep.
Erik’s dementia-addled mother, Momo (Lauren Klein), has fewer and fewer lucid days, and there’s a creeping anger underneath the chipper self-righteousness of his wife, Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), as she prattles on about her faith and her maternal dedication to everyone else’s happiness. Their other daughter, Aimee (Cassie Beck), is a lawyer who has broken up with her girlfriend and been pushed off the partner track at work due to an intestinal disorder for which she faces major surgery.
The Blakes might be called dysfunctional, except that by most standards they’re not. What Karam does with consummate skill over 95 minutes of unbroken real time is to show with warmth and compassion how very ordinary this family and its difficulties are. Their displays of tenderness or casual cruelty are funny not because jokes are written into the dialogue, but because the characters are drawn with unimpeachable honesty, sketching in a whole history of mutual friction and support. Erik’s relaxed physicality with his daughters; both Brigid’s and her mother’s tendency toward blunt criticism; the nonverbal communication shorthand between Erik and Deirdre — everything points to how much they need one another.
To Richard, who comes from a well-heeled family of depressed neurotics, the Blakes are a different species, and yet he’s drawn to what they have together. There’s discussion around the table of whether poverty can in fact be a blessing, and while Karam doesn’t patronize anyone by romanticizing the struggles of low-income families, he does make an eloquent case for the kind of scrappy yet steadfast connections they share.
Erik freely admits his concern that Brigid has settled in precisely the environment from which Momo fled a life of hardship two generations earlier. Not to mention the setting of disasters both natural and man-made. But eventually, Erik’s fears for the unity of the family are traced to his own missteps. Not a lot happens in The Humans, but through prayers and holiday rituals, seemingly inconsequential (and sometimes overlapping) conversations and sober revelations, the playwright shows how the Blakes cope with adversity, deal with mistakes, face the stinging possibility of failure and yet, hopefully, endure.
While Karam mostly steers away from the kind of big, explosively cathartic moments that often shape such dramatic scenarios, his play has stirring emotional moments: Aimee’s needy phone call to her ex, overheard by Erik; a dinner-table reading of an email from Momo, written as the early signs of Alzheimer’s were taking hold; a harrowing outburst from the old woman that destroys the last vestiges of calm. There’s also a shot of infectious joy when Momo recalls the words of a Thanksgiving prayer and joins in, emerging from her solitary fog. It’s tremendously moving watching the other family members rally to that momentary illusion that all is as it once was.
The challenge of Karam’s writing is its avoidance of sentimentality, requiring direction and performances of the utmost delicacy to locate its poignancy. Mantello’s production achieves that, finding gorgeous balance between humor and sadness, love and disappointment, hope and dread, solace and hollow desolation. The acting is faultless. Birney and Houdyshell are indisputable treasures of the New York stage, and their fellow castmembers all rise to the same level of complexity in revealing the layers beneath their characters’ established roles within the family dynamic.
Some might reject The Humans as a downer, and unquestionably it closes on an unsettling note of pain that resonates long after the actors have taken their bows. But audiences who see only the sorrow in Karam’s grainy family snapshot are missing the grace and light and the extraordinary intimacy that pierce the shadows.
Venue: Helen Hayes Theatre, New York
Cast: Cassie Beck, Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Arian Moayed, Sarah Steele
Director: Joe Mantello
Playwright: Stephen Karam
Set designer: David Zinn
Costume designer: Sarah Laux
Lighting designer: Justin Townsend
Sound designer: Fitz Patton
Presented by Scott Rudin, Barry Diller, Roundabout Theatre Company, Fox Theatricals, James L. Nederlander, Roy Furman, Daryl Roth, Jon B. Platt, Eli Bush, Broadway Across America, Jack Lane, Barbara Whitman, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Scott M. Delman, Sonia Friedman, Amanda Lipitz, Peter May, Stephanie P. McClelland, Lauren Stein, The Shubert Organization