David Zinn's set design for The Humans is detailed and innovative.
We see two levels of a duplex apartment in Manhattan, connected by a spiral staircase. That means we can see and hear characters who can't see each other, although in some cases the sound creeps up the staircase, creating opportunities for eavesdropping.
What happens in that apartment is the stuff of timeworn drama: a family (a Catholic family, no less) gather for dinner (Thanksgiving dinner, no less). As the drinks flow and the turkey's served, confrontations spark and revelations escape, whether intentionally or not. What distinguishes Stephen Karam's Tony-winning 2014 play is not its substance but its style. Witty and consistently engaging, The Humans distracts us with amusing zingers while its underlying dread creeps up from below.
In the touring production now at the Orpheum Theatre, Daisy Eagan and Luis Vega play Brigid and Richard, a dating couple who've just moved in together, proud of the generous floor space in their poorly-lit apartment. They're hosting Brigid's parents Erik (Richard Thomas) and Dierdre (Pamela Reed, Amy Poehler's mom from Parks and Recreation), who bring Erik's mother Momo (Lauren Klein), addled with severe dementia. Brigid's lawyer sister Aimee (Therese Plaehn) also joins the party.
Karam almost taunts us with the characters' hackneyed conflicts. Erik and Dierdre think Brigid and Richard should get married, and they wonder about Richard's age. Aimee is losing her job, after missing work due to a struggle with an intestinal disorder that keeps her running to the bathroom. Momo's care is becoming overwhelming, but the family can't afford to hire any help. There's even a class angle, sharpened when it's revealed that Richard has a trust fund.
However commonplace, these are the problems a lot of real, well, humans have. It's a highly accessible play, a great choice to bring your parents (or your grown children), full of gentle gags about the inescapable awkwardness of maintaining adult relationships with the people who changed your diapers. Dierdre keeps nudging Erik about a big revelation he's hesitant to share with the kids, keeping us in suspense all the while.
What makes The Humans more than just a sturdy theatrical chestnut for our uncertain century is Karam's creativity in using the two-level setup, as well as a subtly ominous tone that builds gradually, surprising us with its power when the show suddenly twists the knife in an astonishing final scene. The family laughs when Erik opens up about his nightmares, but the aging apartment's thumps and groans insidiously remind us that the terrors of everyday life are all too real.
This is a play that will surely be produced by numerous companies in years to come, but it's worth going now to see this tight and compelling touring production. Timing is everything in this play, and this strong ensemble cast have it spot-on. Director Joe Mantello, with lighting designer Justin Townsend, also makes the most of opportunities to silhouette characters in the illumination that creeps in from doors and windows and unreliable bulbs.
After The Humans, you may suddenly see your own home as a stage set...and reflect on the audience, however much smaller, that's watching to see what you do next.
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