Genre: Play, Comedy; Starring: Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell; Writer: Stephen Karam; Director: Joe Mantello; Opening Date: Oct. 25, 2015
There’s something Chekhovian about Stephen Karam’s The Humans, the Thanksgiving-themed tragicomedy now playing Off Broadway at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre.
Unlike Karam’s previous plot-packed works — 2007’s teen-misfit comedy Speech & Debate and 2011’s meditation on grief, Sons of the Prophet (also Roundabout productions) — The Humans features only one scene, which plays out in real time. It also uses just one set — the spacious Chinatown ground-floor duplex of Richard (Arian Moayed, last seen up to his ankles in blood in this summer’s Guards at the Taj) and girlfriend Brigid (Speech & Debate’s Sarah Steele), whose family has driven in from Scranton, Pa., for dinner. Less is more in The Humans, and that includes the unadorned plot. No one drops any outrageous, relationship-shattering bombshells — small, damaging ones, sure, but nothing totally ruinous; no one ends up covered in mashed potatoes; and no one breaks any dishes in frustration. (There aren’t even any dishes to break! Thanks to a broken-down moving truck, Richard and Brigid’s place is pretty much bare, so everyone’s eating off paper plates.) The biggest drama might be maneuvering dementia-addled, wheelchair-bound grandma (Lauren Klein), or “Momo” as she’s called, around the apartment: The entrance is upstairs, dinner is downstairs, bathroom is upstairs… you get the picture.
What makes The Humans so extraordinary is Karam’s spot-on rendering of perfectly ordinary characters: the way Brigid’s dad Erik (Reed Birney, in peak Everyman form) announces the score of the Lions game as if everyone was waiting to hear it. How her mom Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, underplaying beautifully), who’s “back on Weight Watchers,” can’t resist picking at the appetizers in front of her. The torturous because-it’s-the-holidays call we overhear her sister, Aimee (Cassie Beck), placing to her ex-girlfriend. The superior tone 26-year-old Brigid adopts when expounding on such topics as superfoods, juicing, and spa days. The highbrow dessert tray that 38-year-old Richard presents: rugelach, vanilla cupcakes, and a chocolate croissant. The pre-dinner discussion of assorted illness and ailments — so-and-so’s knee replacements, so-and-so’s cancer. Has Karam been eavesdropping on my Christmas dinners?
Perhaps your family doesn’t discuss dreams at the dinner table as Erik and Richard do. (Then again, there’s no TV, so they have to talk about something.) And you’re probably not subjected to the relentless eerie sounds of the laundry room, the trash compactor, and an upstairs neighbor who must be dropping bowling balls on your ceiling, all of which, in this case, establish an ever-so-slight (and slightly forced) supernatural undertone. The creepiest thing about The Humans is how real everyone up on that stage is. It’s frightening— and completely fascinating. A-