Stephen Karam’s The Humans is a play about fear, and I felt a few jitters when I went to see it on Broadway. I loved The Humans at first sight in October, back when it was at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre; it was the highest-placing new play on Time Out’s year-end list of the best theater of 2015. But not every show manages a Broadway transfer with equal grace, and I wondered if the some of the qualities that made it special Off Broadway—the sharpness of Joe Mantello’s staging, the ease of the ensemble acting, the audience’s shared awareness of being in the dark—could survive a transfer to a larger theater.
I needn’t have worried. The Humans is just as funny, just as moving and just as sneakily unsettling in its new Broadway incarnation, and retains its essential intimacy. (The Helen Hayes Theatre is Broadway’s smallest venue, after all, with only about 150 more seats than the Pels.) Its title notwithstanding, Karam’s play never seems general; it is about a very specific family—the Blakes, united for a fraught Thanksgiving at the Chinatown apartment of the clan’s youngest daughter—with particular problems that we piece together over the course of 95 minutes in their company. As I wrote in my original review of The Humans:
“The details of these people’s lives are tatted into a lacework of pride and secrecy, bad decisions and dumb luck, willed faith and misplaced trust. The dominant theme is fear: of failure, ruin, loneliness, death. Family rituals (an especially charming one involves smashing a peppermint pig) provide a measure of support, even when enacted in an unfamiliar space, with wine in red plastic cups and inexplicably loud noises from upstairs. But such comforts only extend so far.”
Seeing the play a second time, and knowing some of its secrets, makes it even more compelling; you’re more alert to what some of the characters aren’t saying. As for what I didn’t say in my initial review, here are a few things. I admire how Karam doesn’t condescend to the pain his characters feel, whatever its cause—from the incoherent terror of an elderly woman in the throes of dementia to the soul-shame of an aspiring young artist who feels hurt and betrayed by a mentor’s faint praise. I am struck by how respectfully the play treats hope that may be false. I’m delighted at the gimlet-eyed comedy that Cassie Beck finds in her portrayal of a woman at luck’s end. And I want to make special mention of Justin Townsend’s lighting and Fitz Patton’s sound, which make essential contributions to the production.
The Humans is the kind of show that we must usually go Off Broadway to see: a thoughtful new play by a young American writer, with a cast of expert local actors. With no slight intended to the lions and the witches and the extravagant wardrobes: It's good to see The Humans on Broadway, too.