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The Humans: Theater review by Adam Feldman
[Note: This review is of the 2015 Off Broadway version of The Humans. For a review of the production's Broadway transfer, click here.]
“Dontcha think it should cost less to be alive?” muses Erik (Reed Birney) to Richard (Arian Moayed) as they ready themselves for Thanksgiving dinner. He’s complaining about his expenses, but in Stephen Karam’s beautifully wrought The Humans, even the small talk has larger echoes. Erik and his wife, Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, lovably stubborn), are a working-class couple in their early sixties; money is growing scarce, but the Blake family’s troubles hardly end there. Erik’s mother, Momo (Lauren Klein), is lost in the terminal stages of dementia, and his daughter, Aimee (Cassie Beck), is reeling from a year of deep medical, professional and romantic trauma. The costs of living pile up everywhere.
Richard and Brigid (Sarah Steele), Erik’s other daughter, have just moved into a cavernous ground-floor duplex apartment in Chinatown—a chilly, indifferent space rendered well in David Zinn’s bi-level set—and the others have traveled up from Pennsylvania to spend the holiday with them. A nuanced group portrait of life in the shadow of disaster, The Humans unfurls in a single 95-minute scene, but it never feels static. As incarnated by a seamless ensemble cast that includes some of New York’s finest stage actors, expertly conducted for the Roundabout by director Joe Mantello, the Blakes constantly move around, adjusting their defenses. The testy warmth of their interaction seems genuine—often amusingly, sometimes painfully—and is rooted in histories that Karam depicts with intimate sympathy. (New to the family, Richard takes the others in with gentle patience. He can afford to; he has a trust fund about to kick in.)
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.
Birney, extraordinarily subtle as always, is alone onstage in the play’s final moments, and the sense of fear turns primal. At this point, The Humans moves into the supernatural, or at least the symbolic, and the starkness of the tonal shift invites the audience to grapple with how it informs what has come before. Having limned the Blake clan with gorgeous naturalism, Karam boldly forces us into a world beyond the familiar.
Laura Pels Theatre (Off Broadway). By Stephen Karam. Directed by Joe Mantello. With Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell. Running time: 1hr 35mins. No intermission.
Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam