Talking With Stephen Karam, the Brilliant Young Playwright Behind The Humans

Karam in rehearsal for The Humans. Photo: Jenny Anderson

Stephen Karam’s Chinatown apartment, which he moved into after the success of his 2011 play Sons of the Prophet, is a huge step up from his last place. Yes, the elevator is tetchy, and the door to the sixth-floor landing features a graffitied penis that someone has attempted to disguise with more scratches. The sort-of-one-bedroom layout is small and irregular, like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that fell off a table. Still, it’s the kind of place a parent, noticing the scripts organized by color, the cheerful troll statuettes, and the light streaming in everywhere, might call “surprisingly nice.” No one would have ventured that phrase to describe his old place, the subterranean lower half of a duplex on the Upper West Side whose one window looked onto the bottom of an air shaft. “It was spooky,” he says, “in an effortless way.” There was no outer world except when it rained. Then, as the drain backed up, he could perceive in the darkness a rising lake of cigarette butts.

It was there that Karam began to think about the dark play, set in a near-replica apartment, that would eventually become The Humans. As its title suggests, The Humans is about old human issues: health and money and lodging and love, and the overriding fear of losing them. And yet, in its mash-up of genres — family drama meets psychological thriller over Thanksgiving dinner — it is also nervily modern. Along with many critics who saw it Off Broadway at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, I thought it was the best play of 2015, and thus sadly likely to disappear from New York by 2016.

That it is nevertheless headed intact to Broadway is “surreal,” Karam marvels over coffee in the Chinatown apartment: “an experience I don’t think will ever happen to me again.” The producer Scott Rudin saw the play at a Sunday matinee before its October opening — a performance “at which patrons’ hearing aids were going off everywhere and we were still tinkering and fine-tuning.” Three days later, Karam’s agent called to say that Rudin had put down a deposit to secure the rights for a transfer. “That actually didn’t make sense to me,” Karam says, “because in what world did a new play” — neither a revival, a musical, a star vehicle, nor a comedy — “get picked up for Broadway before it was even reviewed? I thought that in writing it as I did, and in making the decision to go with our favorite actors instead of killing ourselves trying to find TV or film stars, we had specifically chosen to take care of the show and say good-bye to Broadway.”

But the same thing, on a smaller scale, had happened to him before. Karam first came to attention Off Broadway in 2006 as the co-author of columbinus, a gripping drama suggested by the Columbine High School massacre. He was 26. After that, the Roundabout, specifically to produce his next play, inaugurated a new black-box space in a sub-basement beneath the Pels and a commissioning program to go with it. Karam has since become a kind of poster boy for that program; even before Speech & Debate opened in October 2007, the theater signed up his next work, “committing themselves to me,” he says, “even if the reviews were terrible.” (They were excellent.) That commission turned into Sons of the Prophet, which was short-listed for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize; the next commission became The Humans. This linkage of production and support is part of a hopeful new trend in play development, but if such policies have created a new track for some extraordinary young writers, Broadway is not on the itinerary.

Yet for Karam, now a boyish 36, it is. This is not solely because he is among the very best of his generation of playwrights. Indeed, sitting neatly folded on his junior-size sofa, he seems to regard his success as cautionary. It wasn’t until Sons of the Prophet that he gave up his day job as a paralegal, which had provided health insurance and printer paper and freed him from worry about the success of his writing. Much as his father combined dregs of stale Cheerios and cornflakes and Lucky Charms into one box so as not to waste any, Karam wasted as little of himself as possible, hoping to avoid the “golden handcuffs” of a mortgage, a lifestyle, or a “job writing for Gossip Girl.” (Being single helps.) Thanks to the intervention of friends, he did eventually acknowledge that jeans cost more than $30. Still, such upgrades make him anxious: “I worry that I will lose control over the projects I get to work on. If you take on these upgrades, you have to maintain them. There’s no going back.”

That anxiety “drips down,” Karam says. “It’s dripping all over the play.” And although he finds talking about autobiographical aspects of his work “pointless” — “Am I a lesbian lawyer? Am I a composer?” he asks, referring to two of the characters in The Humans — it is important in understanding his achievement to note that he comes to the theater as an outsider. Like the Blake family in The Humans, he is from hardscrabble Scranton, Pennsylvania; like the Douaihy brothers in Sons of the Prophet, he grew up gay in a Maronite Lebanese-American family with its fair share of problems and prejudices. He doesn’t have to dig very hard for the themes that have always animated the most powerful theater; for him, they’re exposed. “At talk-backs, I’ve been asked: Why did you have so many terrible things happen to one family?” he says. “And I think: What family do you live in?

Still, if his expectations for The Humans (and the humans) are modest, Karam is anything but dour. “I think it’s scary to be alive, but also exhilarating and joyful.” He has begun work on another play and is awaiting the release of his first two movies: an indie realization of Speech & Debate and an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, starring Annette Bening and Saoirse Ronan. Beyond that, waking up each morning to write only what he wants is “living large,” he says. “This is as good as it gets.”          

The Humans opens at the Helen Hayes Theatre on February 18.

*This article appears in the January 25, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.