The title for Stephen Karam’s new play “The Humans,” which takes place during a family’s Thanksgiving dinner, may come from a line of dialogue by a character who talks about the monsters in a comic book whose horror stories “are all about humans.”
This is one of the cues that “The Humans,” a slice-of-life drama extraordinarily well acted by Off-Broadway royalty, is a play that explores everyday fears. Everybody is afraid of something, and when the Blake family of Scranton, Pennsylvania gathers together in the Manhattan apartment into which youngest daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard (Arian Moayed) have just moved, the holiday is punctuated with a variety of bumps and literal thumps.
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The couple lives in an ancient basement duplex apartment in Chinatown (an impressive split-level set by David Zinn, helping to emphasize the chaos of family life.) The place is full of sudden blackouts (the lighting designer is Justin Townsend) and scary sounds (unerringly designed by Fitz Patton to mimic the varied angry groans of a pre-war New York building.) There is a suggestion of the supernatural in all this, especially at the play’s conclusion. But, under Joe Mantello’s expert direction, the atmosphere of dread becomes an outward manifestation of the characters’ fears. Erik and Deirdre (the always terrific Reed Birney and Jane Houdyshell) are afraid of making ends meet; afraid for Eric’s demented mother (a frighteningly convincing Lauren Klein), afraid for their children. Aimee and Brigid are afraid for their aging, achy parents. Brigid (the consistently winning Sarah Steele) is afraid she won’t ever get a job as a musician, or indeed any full-time job at all. Her sister Aimee (Cassie Beck) is a lawyer who is afraid of what the next few years will bring, since this one was so bad: “I lost my job, my girlfriend, and I’m bleeding internally… really a banner year.”
Playwright Stephen Karam, who has developed a nearly cult following as the result of two plays, Speech & Debate (reportedly being made into a movie), and Sons of the Prophet, nails the dynamics of an ordinary (i.e. fascinating) family over the course of the few hours of the Thanksgiving get-together — teasing, taunting, cutting, spiteful, resentful, judgmental, nagging, effortlessly loving. But he goes further, offering a glimpse at nothing less than the strains and stresses of American middle class life (“Dontcha think,” Erik asks at one point, “it should cost less to be alive?”) while never straying from credibly and affectionately presenting the lives of six individual humans.
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
Written by Stephen Karam; Directed by Joe Mantello
David Zinn scenic design, Sarah Laux costume design,Justin Townsend lighting design, Fitz Patton sound design
Cast Cassie Beck as Aimee Blake, Reed Birney as Erik Blake, Jayne Houdyshell as Deirdre Blake, Sarah Steele as Brigid Blake, Arian Moayed as Richard and Lauren Klein as Fiona “Momo” Blake
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Extended to January 3, 2016