By Stephen Karam
Directed by Joe Mantello
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
From the opening of Stephen Karam’s deeply engaging play, the audience becomes aware that “The Humans” is somehow going to be Erik’s (Reed Birney) story. This patriarch of the Blake clan has just arrived from Scranton to visit his daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her fiancé Richard (Arian Moayed) in their new Chinatown duplex just blocks from Ground Zero. Erik just missed being in the World Trade Center Observation Tower during the 9/11 blast and is uncomfortable his daughter is now living so close to the site. What he does not realize yet – nor does the audience – is that this current visit will leave him as changed and transformed as did that visit back in 2001. The first clue comes with the thud he hears coming from above, the first of many such clues in this carefully written play that meticulously peels away the protective layers surrounding a dysfunctional family to reveal the secret that lies at the very heart of the family’s inability to enjoy their Thanksgiving dinner.
This first thud is soon juxtaposed with Erik’s mother’s comment as she enters the apartment. Fiona “Momo” Blake’s (Lauren Klein) first words are, “You can never come back…you can never come back/…you can never come back…cannevery you come back…” Erik’s wife Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) responds, “Alright….you’re alright, Mom…” We humans tend to minimize all that is clearly not all right. Erik is typically the only one who notices or responds to the thud. The thud is a character in the play. Brigid does not really explore the provenance of the sound, just assumes it is a normal part of urban living and coming from the 70-year-old Chinese woman living upstairs. Humans often ignore signs that all is not quite right, preferring to assume whatever is trying to get our attention is irrelevant or that we have the strength to overcome whatever it might be.
After everyone is gathered, including Erik’s and Deirdre’s other daughter Aimee (Cassie Beck), the family engages in an upstairs-downstairs verbal slugfest of insults, put-downs, and often hateful barbs – all of which belie the matrix of insecurity and fear plaguing the fabric of the family.
There are a multitude of bathroom visits and issues. No toilet paper, no interior light switch, no window for ventilation, warnings about odors, all easily overlooked but all clearly related to an important Ur-genital subtext that inhabits the underbelly of the play. Things are not right in the intimate lives of the Blake family and that is yet one more hint to the discovery of the family’s secret. And there are issues with connectivity and communication – cell phones have difficulty picking up signals, depending on the service provider. This is a family whose members have been cut off from connecting in significant ways to the outside world in addition to their being disconnected from one another emotionally and spiritually.
Erik and Richard operate on the rich subconscious level (both dreaming) both “outsiders” really, one about to come into money, one having lost his inheritance (pension), both stepping into the abyss of the id and its discontents (for Erik venturing into the unknown thumps and whirs and creaks of the near-ground-zero apartment). The center is not holding, never has held, never will, and the ego loses its ability to defend against the “wolves” surrounding the family fire. Ego strength disintegrates – the old woman and trash compactor overcome sense and sensibility. It is not the humans vs. the extraterrestrials or the ghouls – tropes for the poltergeist-type goings on around the apartment – it is humans versus humans in this holiday gathering.
Richard shares his dream, “It’s about this species of like half-alien, half-demon-creatures with teeth on their backs — but on their planet, the scary stories they tell each other…they’re all about us. The horror stories for the monsters are all about humans./ I love that…” And when he is alone with Richard, Erik shares his dream, “[Yeah]…I didn’t bring it up with — The girls already think I’m losing it, you know but — the woman without a [face]…she’s trying to get me in this, like a tunnel?” The rest of the important conversation follows:
RICHARD Yeah? And what do you do?
ERIK: Uh…I don’t move, I dunno…
RICHARD: Tunnels are — in my class we got this list of primitive settings? — tunnels and caves, forests, the sea…stuff so a part of us it’s…you know, 200,000 years ago…someone might’ve…closed their eyes and…seen a similar kind of [image]…? Get in it next time, the tunnel…
ERIK: Thanks,/ I’ll try that…
RICHARD I’m serious, get in it next time — tunnels can just be, stuff hidden from yourself? so passing through one…[I dunno]…could be…a favorable omen…you know?
“The Humans” is a psychological thriller that manages to capture the human condition, its pain, its worries, its culpability, even its hopes in concrete images that often leave the audience spellbound. Joe Mantello’s direction is pure perfection as is David Zinn’s upstairs-downstairs, superego-ego set where human frailty and its fractious fault lines expose a misstep made by patriarch Erik – the misstep that has detonated the short fuse that has barely held this family together over the years. The ensemble cast is brilliant – one member better than the next – and with superb craft give each of their characters a gritty authenticity.
Sometimes we humans just have to let go and leap into the unknown of change that can ultimately be redemptive and restorative in seemingly unearthly ways.