Susan Granger’s review of “The Humans” (Helen Hayes Theatre – March, 2016)
On Thanksgiving, the Irish-American Blake family from Scranton, Pennsylvania, gathers at the creepy Chinatown apartment recently acquired by daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard Saad (Arian Moayed).
It’s a grungy ground-floor/basement duplex which, as her father Erik (Reed Birney) notes, is in a flood zone and disturbingly close to the downed World Trade Center.
Twentysomething Brigid is an aspiring composer/musician, working as a waitress, while thirtyish Richard is completing his Master’s in social work with a trust fund in his future.
Underneath the illusion of gaiety, there’s tension-filled emotional quicksand. The highly-stressed Blakes are struggling with socioeconomic, medical and romantic problems, to mention only a few agonies stacked on their plates.
Erik and his wife Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) have disturbing news that they’re reluctant to reveal, while Brigid’s older sister, Aimee (Cassie Beck), a lawyer who was recently dumped by her girl-friend, is facing a serious illness. And then there’s Fiona a.k.a. “Momo” (Lauren Klein), Erik’s wheelchair-bound mother, suffering from dementia.
Momo mutters gibberish, as if to emphasize the entire, lower-middle-class family’s inherent difficulty with communication.
This is the third play by Stephen Karam, moved intact from the Laura Pels Theatre, having been nurtured by the Roundabout Theatre’s Off-Broadway wing.
Evolving on David Zinn’s two-level set with Justin Townsend’s gloomy lighting, it’s subtly directed by Joe Mantello, and punctuated by what the playwright describes as “a sickening thud” from the apartment above – that’s accurately rendered by sound designer Fitz Patton.
Led by Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell, the cast is uniformly superb. But with no resolution in sight, Karam delivers an ultra-naturalistic, even banal, slice-of-life drama that leaves the audience with a wrenching sense of dread and little hope for the future.
Or, as Erik says, “Whatever gifts God’s given us, in the end, everything you have goes…”
As for the title, it stems from Richard’s unsettling description of his favorite comic book series, revolving around a race of monsters who, idiosyncratically, fear humans.
FYI: “The Humans” is performed without an intermission and there’s a posted warning that if you leave your seat for any reason during the performance, you will not be permitted to return.