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The Humans

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Sarah Steele and Reed Birney
Photo by Joan Marcus

Sound is how you experience it first. That banging upstairs, which reverberates through the floor as if someone is lifting and dropping ten-ton weights over and over again, begins as a curiosity, but soon melts into annoyance, then rage, then—yes—terror. Not so much that you feel that the ceiling is about to cave in (though there are times you wonder), but that the ongoing pounding thumps will soon replace the beating of your heart. What is that noise? And why won't it stop? After a while, it seems as though absolutely nothing remains in your control.

That relentless assault on your soul from the outside in is at the heart of Stephen Karam's absorbing play The Humans, which Roundabout is giving its New York premiere at the Laura Pels Theatre. But stay hopeful: The chances are low that you'll be driven insane by the pinpoint verisimilitude of Joe Mantello's production, which utilizes Fitz Patton's flawless sound design to achieve its most maddening effects. The bigger worry is that the personal stories at the work's center, which are even more compelling, will hit you too close to home.

The premise is potentially chilling as it is: a Thanksgiving dinner with family. In this case, the Blakes. Brigid (Sarah Steele) and Richard (Arian Moayed) have just moved into a new duplex apartment in Chinatown, and invited Brigid's closest kin over for a housewarming holiday. Dad Erik (Reed Birney), mom Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), and sister Aimee (Cassie Beck) arrive in decent spirits, though grandma Fiona (Lauren Klein), suffering from severe dementia, is having one of her bad days, and can do nothing but mumble nonsense phrases over and over. ("You can never come back" is one of the more coherent.)

Everyone has brought along plenty of baggage. For Erik it's acute back pain that leaves him hobbling around; and Deirdre's knees are giving out, which complicates traversing the spiral staircase between the ground-floor and basement levels. Both have gone whole-hog Catholic, bringing Brigid a Virgin Mary statue and freshly complaining that she and Richard are not married. Aimee's ulcerative colitis means she can scarcely be more than a few steps away from the bathroom (which is, ugh, windowless), and she has yet to recover from a recent breakup with her very serious girlfriend. The unemployed Brigid is having difficulty finding another job, and Richard, still a student though in his late 30s, is not bringing in a ton of money himself yet.

Sarah Steele and Reed Birney joined by Cassie Beck, Arian Moayed, Jayne Houdyshell, and Lauren Klein.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Loose enough of these problems on each other and a chain reaction is inevitable; do so in a dimly lit, cavelike environment such as this, with those increasingly bizarre noises coming from upstairs and eventually elsewhere, and the process is accelerated. As you might suspect, over the course of the simple dinner (lots of farmer's market produce, yes, but also disposable-plastic plates, flatware, and cups), the difficulties bombarding these people from all sides become impossible to avoid and their effects impossible to predict (aside from the obvious: that they're almost invariably negative).

The Humans is deliciously theatrical but not self-consciously showy. Karam and Mantello have smoothed away every seam between the dialogue and staging, so that these six lives truly appear to implode as you watch them. The constant overlapping of dialogue is artful and organic, even musical, precisely redolent of people like these who know what the others will say before they open their mouths. Mantello ups the game still further with his electric, layered staging on David Zinn's cavernous, two-tiered set; the director knows just where to focus your eye and ear (seldom, if ever, on the same thing at the same time) to convey the maximum complexities of the relationships and ever-evolving allegiances. And none of this would be possible without Justin Townsend's superb lights, which masterfully reveal or obscure as necessary each of the many nuances Mantello has crafted.

The overall result is a simple wonder in the way it explores the distressingly real Blakes, showing how they fit into a grander picture of loss and hopelessness (the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center are for them a fulcrum event) while whittling them down to their most individual component elements. Though each is firm manifestation of a certain idea or emotion that guides their actions, it's in the interplay between them, the give-and-take attitude that can build up as easily as it can erode, that we see who everyone really is and what the most imposing challenges really are. Yet because of how gingerly he unveils each new secret, Karam never allows you time to adjust: You'll always be cemented to the edge of your seat.

A sumptuous group of actors only reinforces these already considerable strengths, and they blend so well with the writing and each other that I'm reluctant to dwell too much on any of them. But Birney and Houdyshell maintain a gripping tension between Erik and Deirdre that builds to an explosive payoff, though the thousand tiny moments they share with Beck and Steele are just as good. (All four of the actors hint at a pulsing, decades-long history of love and resentment that's only now finding its final form in the silent, acidic glares and sharply swallowed words they exchange.) And although her role consists of little more than mutterings and outbursts, Klein is perfection as the fading Fiona.

It's worth mentioning that The Humans has received some comparison with Annie Baker's John, another play this season about fractured relationships set in an unsettling environment where nothing is exactly as it seems it should be. And given that Karam and Baker are two of the very best newer writers out there, that's understandable. But aside from a few superficial similarities, the two works couldn't be more different. Karam's is short and intense (just about a hundred minutes); Baker's was epic, built on misdirection and slow-burn surprises. For me, Baker's was a bit more moving; rich as Karam's characters are, particularly near the end he gets a bit bogged down in his trickery, which is more effective when it's an echo rather than a sonic boom.

But that's much of what family life is, isn't it—complaining about and integrating others' imperfections, and then either moving on or not? The Blakes learn the hard way where the boundaries are, and what the imperfections between them really mean, and they have more to face than most of us ever will. Together, though, they're a stalwart center to one of the can't-miss plays of the year, and one that proves that—whatever clanging may be going on all around—the New York theatre family is one that would be infinitely less rewarding were Karam not a part of it.

The Humans
Through December 27
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
Tickets and current performance schedule:

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