New York City Theater
Laura Pels Theater
In the penultimate scene of “The Humans,” the lights go out. But Stephen Karam’s riveting play doesn’t need the trappings of cheap melodrama. Instead, the things that go bump in the night of this frightening, funny/sad work are everyday occurrences: the sounds of a trash compacter and laundry machines, stomping noises from upstairs and, most pointedly, the digs and needles that family members give one another. Not just another “dysfunctional family” play, “The Humans” is a finely calibrated portrait of people adrift in an unmoored world.
Deirdre and Erik Blake, from Scranton, are visiting Brigid, one of their daughters, in New York. It’s Thanksgiving, that always fraught holiday. With them are their other daughter, Aimee, and Erik’s dementia-ridden mother, “Momo.” Brigid lives with boyfriend Richard Saad who comes from the good side of the tracks and a family of “stoic sadness,” prompting a discussion on whether poverty can be a blessing and wealth a curse, or vice versa.
Erik has lost his job over a moral indiscretion and has weird dreams, Deirdre is a religious complainer, Aimee has broken up with her girlfriend and faces a serious colitis operation, while Momo alternately babbles and shouts. Only Brigid and Richard seem to have a stable relationship.
When they all sing “May peace and joy be with you,” or Brigid and Erik talk about their narrow escape from the Twin Towers massacre, or Erik says, “No matter who you are, everything you have goes,” the audience is enwrapped in a cloak of melancholy. Yet the family is generous, loving and, at times, very funny.
These are, as the title indicates, mere humans, trying to live without too much damage, putting one foot in front of the other, supporting one another, no matter what. In a world where “everything is chaotic and unstable,” what else can be done?
Directed by Joe Mantello with a firm hand on nuance and reality, the play is breathtakingly acted by Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Cassie Beck, Lauren Klein, Sarah Steele and Arian Moayed. Scheduled to move to Broadway, the starless “The Humans” may have a tough time on the Main Stem, but its considerable virtues are its own selling points.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 6, 2015