Great plays are usually great in one of two ways. Either they are culminating examples of existing ideas, or groundbreaking examples of new things entirely. The Humans, by Stephen Karam, at first seems like it will be one of the former. It situates itself squarely in the long-established theatrical tradition of family-at-the-holidays plays, and is absolutely, relentlessly gripping as such. That’s no small achievement, given the familiarity of the genre, which goes back at least as far as Thornton Wilder’s 1931 one-act The Long Christmas Dinner and has at this point devolved into a young playwright’s throat-clearing exercise, in which a lot of autobiographical bile gets expectorated.
At 35, Karam is still a young playwright himself, but his version shares with such plays only the structural format (a real-time meal) and the I’ve-been-there authenticity of its setting. The Humans takes place at Thanksgiving, in the large but lightless and somewhat creepy Chinatown apartment that Brigid Blake, 26, and her boyfriend Richard Saad, 38, have just moved into. Brigid is a struggling artist, of course — a composer getting by on under-the-table waitressing pay and unemployment. Richard is finishing up a master’s in social work and clearly comes from wealth; the difference in their backgrounds is but one of the things they don’t seem to deal with but which the arrival of her family, from working-class Scranton, pushes to the surface. The Blakes are under every sort of stress imaginable: marital, socioeconomic, romantic, cultural, medical, existential. And yet they feel like characters, not signboards, trying so hard, out of a combination of shame and love for one another, to cover up their baleful messages. The parents, Erik and Deirdre, have discomfiting news they keep hoping not to share; Aimee, Brigid’s older sister, mostly maintains the brave face of someone who, having been dumped by her girlfriend and facing serious illness, is allergic to pity. And then there’s Momo, Erik’s mother, four years deep into dementia. She mutters gibberish quietly throughout as if to underline the equivocal nature of communication in a family unable to say what must be said.
Karam’s thrilling mastery of polyphonic dialogue — most of it barely “lines” in the traditional sense but rather feints and phrases — would be enough to sustain the play as a superb slice-of-life story. The halting, eddying, and often-diverted flow of conversation makes for an uncanny naturalism, arising mysteriously from a script that, on paper, seems almost banal and impossible to follow. It is not uncommon that at any one moment, two discussions about nothing much and a sotto voce monologue of nonsense syllables are going on at once, at different locations on David Zinn’s perfectly calibrated two-level set (the apartment is a jury-rigged basement duplex) or that half of a heartbreaking cellphone conversation is being observed silently by another family member while the young couple flirts in the kitchen and Deirdre hushes Momo to sleep on a couch. That this is all completely legible onstage — by which I don’t mean that it is all understood but that it is all taken in — is the result of one of those miracles of producing, in this case by the Roundabout, that has brought the perfect cast (and designers) together under faultlessly confident direction. (Joe Mantello’s experience staging musicals proves unexpectedly useful in shaping and clarifying the action.) In terms of sustained high-quality naturalism, the only recent works I can compare The Humans to are The Flick by Annie Baker (as directed by Sam Gold) and the Apple Family plays (directed by their author, Richard Nelson).
But just as Karam’s naturalism is uncanny, so is his uncanniness naturalistic. The Humans, it turns out, is not just one of those culminating genre pieces but also, at the same time, one of those “new things entirely.” Into the familiar dinner-table-drama genre the playwright has mixed the unexpected element of terror — or, rather, he has created a new element by bombarding one with the other. Before any dialogue even begins, he introduces this note of dread with what is called in the script a “sickening thud” (and is perfectly rendered along with lots of other awful noises by the sound designer, Fitz Patton). It is, Brigid explains, merely the sound of the upstairs neighbor, a 70-year-old Chinese woman: “We think she drops stuff? Or stomps around? — we don’t know…” But to family members on edge, it becomes something so much bigger that it eventually yanks the play out of one orbit and into another. By the end, with no violation of realism, we have entered the realm of horror, only the horror is not external, any more than Erik’s nightmares of a faceless woman, or Momo’s unknowable dread, are external. They are all, I suppose, projections of the amassed “stoic sadness” of a family for whom depression is so deep and structural it is almost a lifestyle, or even a philosophy. “Everything you have, goes,” is Erik’s unfortunate toast before dinner.
What makes the play so large in its intense specificity is Karam’s suggestion that this state of affairs is not just one family’s idiosyncrasy, but rather our species’, as we scratch our way forward at what for everyone living is always the end of time. Richard, the outsider, gets nearest the point (and incidentally explains the play’s title) in a description of a comic book series he likes. It is about a race of monsters who, naturally, do not fear monsters as we do; instead, they fear the humans. We are quite enough to stock a horror show.
I should add that, for all this, the play is rackingly funny even as it pummels the heart and scares the bejesus out of you. If I highlight the work of two of the six actors in producing that effect, it is not to diminish the work of the four others. Sarah Steele as Brigid, Cassie Beck as Aimee, Arian Moayed as Richard, and Lauren Klein as Momo are also excellent. Perhaps Reed Birney as Erik and Jayne Houdyshell as Deirdre stand out for me because they are the ones in the middle (and closest to my own age). The whole hailstorm of human grief is pummeling them even at Thanksgiving, and yet they still make bad jokes, forgive betrayals and retreat into pettiness, overdrink and regret it, count calories and fail to, are piteous and angry and as overflowing with love for their failed little pod as Karam evidently is with ours.
The Humans is at the Laura Pels Theatre through December 27.