The Humans: EW stage review
The Humans opens like a gothic horror show: Unsettlingly loud thuds shake the ceiling of a dark apartment. If you knew nothing about the play, which was written by Stephen Karam and enjoyed a sold-out run Off Broadway, you’d think from the opening moments that it might be a ghost story. But while there’s a subtle supernatural undercurrent throughout, the horrors in The Humans aren’t the ones that pop out from dark corners (the scariest critter is a giant cockroach … okay, that’s pretty terrifying). Instead, they’re completely mundane and universal — and they’re often very funny.
The drama opens on Thanksgiving, as Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele), a 20-something bartender and aspiring composer, welcomes her out-of-town parents, older sister, and grandmother to the Manhattan apartment she’s moving into with her older boyfriend, Richard (Arian Moayed). She’s proud that the apartment is a duplex, but it’s a shambling, cigarette ash-streaked duplex in Chinatown with almost no natural sunlight and a host of other problems: faulty wiring, a senseless floorplan, a clanking trash compactor in the hallway, and of course, that noisy upstairs neighbor. Brigid greets her family with trumped-up optimism about her new place, but her dad Erik (Reed Birney) and mom Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), hardly go through the motions of pretending to believe her.
Apartment troubles aside, it’s clear early on that all’s not well with the Blakes. Most visibly, Brigid’s grandmother, Momo (Lauren Klein), has dementia and is confined to a wheelchair and erupts into gibberish at random times. Erik, rocking dad jeans and wispy gray hair he cuts himself, has been working at the same private school for 30 years and laments the zero savings he has to show for it. Deirdre has been working the same office manager job for even longer and is using the holiday to cheat on her Weight Watchers points. Brigid’s sister Aimee (Cassie Beck), a lawyer, spends most of the first half of the play in the bathroom sick with ulcerative colitis, a serious illness that has led to her losing her job.
If iy sounds like a recipe for a miserable Thanksgiving, it partly is, but the 95-minute dinner, which plays out in real time, has all the ebbs and flows of a typical holiday gathering. Some jokes, best delivered by Deirdre or Aimee, make the whole table (and audience) laugh; others cut too deep. People go from being festively drunk to angrily drunk to morosely drunk and back again. Mini coalitions form and break apart. Momo has touchingly lucid moment and a horrible outburst. Thanks to Karam’s script and the ensemble’s performances, every slight, every shared memory, and every knowing glance feels utterly lived in. The brilliant direction by Joe Mantello helps hugely with believability as well — the movement of the actors throughout the David Zinn’s two-floor set, which we look in on like a dollhouse no one would want, is wonderfully intricate yet fluid.
There’s no plate-smashing moment that you see in more histrionic family-gathering dramas (all the flatware in Brigid’s apartment is plastic anyway). Each of the Blakes, even Momo, are masking major tragedies in their lives, but even those are revealed in ways that feel utterly unforced. Some moments are absolutely devastating — Reid Birney, as the hollowed-out father prone to thousand-yard stares, is the standout of the cast — but it’s unfair to label the play as simply “depressing,” because it’s depressing in the way life is depressing and hilarious in the way life is hilarious. Brigid’s makeshift dinner table turns out to be a fascinating lens on bigger issues, including the declining middle class and post-9/11 New York, but The Humans is most universal when it says ultra-specific. With every passing year, there’s a better chance Erik and Deirdre will go the way of Momo, and that Brigid and Aimee will inherit their parents’ disappointment. But Karam’s transcendently mundane play is a reminder that family dinner dramas can still be surprising — and they doesn’t need ghosts or things that go bump in the night to achieve that. Real life is scary enough. A-