Before there’s any spoken dialogue in The Humans, Stephen Karam’s 2015 Tony Award-winning Best Play, there are those eerie sounds.
Those ominous, startling sounds will persist long after the dialogue stops, too. But what’s clear from the start is that this will be a story about anxieties, the kind that regularly ruin a good night’s sleep for the average American working-class family, going bump in the night like a restless ghost.
Although The Humans is ultimately crushingly somber, much of Karam’s astonishing play is improbably funny, relatable for anyone who has endured—as so many of us have—tense familial gatherings.
Erik and Deirdre Blake have driven into Manhattan from Scranton to spend Thanksgiving at their daughter Brigid’s new Chinatown apartment, where she lives with her boyfriend, Richard. They’ve brought along with them “Momo,” Erik’s wheelchair-bound mother, who is suffering from dementia. This is her last big trip, they think. Their other daughter, Aimee, has taken the train up from Philadelphia, where she works as a lawyer.
They all converge at Brigid and Richard’s dingy duplex (painstakingly designed by David Zinn), and they fall quickly and effortlessly into the rapid-fire dialogue characteristic of a family that is excited to be together again but can’t help getting on each other’s nerves.
There are a lot of issues gnawing at the Blake family, after all.
Deirdre, the mother, is struggling with her weight, and her arthritis has been acting up; Brigid is buried under her student loans and is stuck bartending in the meantime; Aimee has recently gone through a breakup with her girlfriend, just found out that she’s no longer on the partner track at her law firm, and her colitis has her making frequent trips to the bathroom; the father, Erik, has been having nightmares and is battling a bad back. And he has something he would like to talk to his daughters about.
And don’t forget about those noises.
Karam’s gift for dialogue is uncanny, and as a result there isn’t a moment of The Humans that doesn’t ring true. It is compulsively watchable and funny, which allows the weighty ending to sneak up on you in ways you won’t expect.
The cast, featuring Richard Thomas of The Waltons, Pamela Reed, and Daisy Eagan (the youngest actress ever to win a Tony Award), is pure perfection. Director Joe Mantello has ensured that his production, which will tour the country through July, is in the kind of air-tight shape that most other touring productions are not.
The Humans is a thrilling experience, one that should easily find its way into your weekend plans.