This is your life…and it is petrifying.
Banging pipes, flickering lightbulbs, and unnerving thuds coming from upstairs: These are fixtures of life in a pre-war New York City apartment building. For even the newest New Yorkers, these occurrences should be mildly annoying rather than deathly terrifying. Not so in Stephen Karam's unsettling new play, The Humans, which is making its Broadway debut at the Helen Hayes Theatre after an acclaimed off-Broadway run with Roundabout Theatre Company. Every line, glance, and bump in the night seems significant in Joe Mantello's finely tuned production.
It is a remarkable display of stagecraft in service to Karam's story. The playwright was heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud's essay "The Uncanny" in writing what appears to be a fairly standard dinner table drama. The characters argue, laugh, and endlessly deflect (the phrase "oh man" is regularly employed by Karam's characters to show casual sympathy without registering a real response). It looks like a cheerful bunch, but we soon learn that looks can be deceiving.
The Blakes are an Irish-American family from Scranton, Pennsylvania. Patriarch Erik (Reed Birney) has worked in maintenance for nearly three decades at a Catholic high school. His wife, Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), is an office manager. They care for Erik's elderly mother, Momo (Lauren Klein), who is suffering from dementia. Their eldest daughter, Aimee (Cassie Beck), is an attorney in Philadelphia, while their youngest, Brigid (Sarah Steele), pursues a music career in New York. The entire family has gathered for Thanksgiving at the Chinatown duplex to which Brigid recently signed a lease with her boyfriend, Rich (Arian Moayed). Since their belongings still haven't arrived, the space is mostly unfurnished, leaving the Blakes with little distraction spare each other's company and the disquieting noise of the surrounding city.
Scenic designer David Zinn has re-created an old ground-floor duplex with exquisite detail: The bizarre layout betrays a space originally designed as two separate apartments, while the thick layers of off-white paint seem meant to conceal decades of secrets (and the lingering aroma of soy sauce). Justin Townsend's believably dim natural lighting spills through the two upstairs windows, landing on a depressing pitch black by the play's end (approximately 6pm). To substitute sunlight, Townsend gives the Blakes unreliable lightbulbs that abruptly burn out as the night progresses. Sound designer Fitz Patton adds to the subtle horror with strategically placed booms emanating from the apartment above and peculiar mechanical noises coming from the basement. I've seen this play before and it still made me jump.
Under Mantello's sensitive direction, the whole production has kept up an aura of lingering dread. In fact, the performances seem sharper in this Broadway transfer: Klein augments the fear with her ramblings, which seem to operate by an internal logical we cannot decipher. Houdyshell tempers Deirdre's maternal instinct with an acerbic wit, the acidity of which is often spat back at her by her youngest daughter. "Mom's still eating her feelings," Brigid states as fact, causing mom to flee to the upper level. A painfully awkward chase up the spiral staircase ensues. As Aimee, Beck adroitly plays the peacemaker, tabling her own tragedies so she can cater to her flailing family.
Offering Aimee the assist, Moayed's Rich plays the role of the consummate diplomat, going out of his way to accommodate the Blakes. Still, he cannot help but offend by virtue of his privileged existence. When called to explain how he plans to pay for his student loans (he's 38 and still in college), the fittingly named Rich reveals that he has a trust fund that will kick in when he turns 40. A discussion of his family's prudence in waiting until middle age to lavish him with wealth ends when Erik bitterly asks, "Do you get how that sounds to a sixty-year-old man?" Erik's ship still has not come in, and it probably never will.
More than anyone else in the cast, Birney's Erik embodies the silent terror that governs so many American lives today (and which has already played a major role in the 2016 presidential campaign). Memories of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy still fresh, Erik is not particularly comfortable even being in New York. With no savings and a retirement plan that is rapidly unraveling, he's under immense pressure to compete in an economy that doesn't want him. Still, he has to hold it all together and play dad. In the limited time he's allowed to bring his guard down, we can feel the tidal wave of emotion that he has to keep dammed up in order to survive. Houdyshell performs the same feat, albeit with a disarming softness.
Erik and Deirdre aren't the only ones in trouble. Aimee is personally and professional adrift; Brigid is coming to terms with her vanishing dreams. Momo is at death's door, but might stay there for another decade. The Blakes cling to their traditions despite a world that is quickly caving in on them. Humor and quiet dignity serve as their only armor. Through brutal realism, Karam presents a family careering toward disaster with little in the way of an evasive action plan. For too many Americans, that situation alone will feel painfully uncanny — so much so that you won't be able to look away.