A dysfunctional family sits down at the Thanksgiving table and treasures the precious time that they have left together. But their geographic locations, ages and past mistakes are threatening to tear them apart.
Stephen Karam’s The Humans, directed by Joe Mantello, is a supernatural social study (if you want a label for it) exploring the difficulties of family love, particularly under claustrophobic circumstances. The Blake family have been invited over to the apartment of younger daughter Brigid and her partner Richard (played by Sarah Steele and Arian Moayed) and also happen to be seeing her new house for the first time. The realist set by David Zinn recreates a ground floor apartment within a housing complex with a spiral staircase entering the kitchen. It’s underground and lacking in natural light, but nonetheless cosy, if slightly confined. This lack of space makes it difficult for the family to keep an eye on the waning Grandma ‘Momo’ (played by Lauren Klein) who has been suffering from dementia for the past four years and requires the constant care and supervision of her children Erik (Reed Birney) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell). The cramped space becomes increasingly hard to navigate, with some surprising anouncements and numerous beer bottles being passed around the table, and only one toilet to escape to.
The energy behind The Humans and the structure behind Karam’s writing is gripping. From start to finish, the dynamic dialogues are captivating and have you leaning forward in your seat. The tension created by the sudden lull in conversation is fully enveloping and then broken at the last minute with the harsh sounds coming from another apartment upstairs. These ‘lulls’ are actually carefully nurtured moments of emphasis which stand in sharp contrast with the fast-paced natural family chatter. They make us focus on characters briefly struggling for words, and on their inner obstacles, whether they be physical or emotional.
The movement coinciding with the natural conversation is flawless and often I felt I like I was a fly on the wall watching, rather rudely, a family I’d never met before celebrating Thanksgiving. The slow spiral out of control as more alcohol is consumed and secrets are shared seems logical and effective. The only thing I was suspicious of is the coincidence that all the light bulbs/the fuse manages to blow within the space of a few hours, however, dramatic license has the benefit of the doubt and of course reality isn’t theatricality. In addition, I was also curious as to why Karam has invested so much in Erik’s feelings during the final scenes, and yet we are left with little closure in terms of the turmoil that Deirdre has been struggling with.
Birney’s ability to invest in his character without becoming self-indulgent is incredible; Erik shares with us a dream that he has been having of a woman with no face and (without wanting to spoil) tries to come to terms with his mistakes and let his children know that he has their best interests at heart. Similarly, Klein’s disabled character is kept active by her captivating ability to share with the audience her inner monologue, as Momo is wheeled around an unfamiliar territory and reminded of memories from the past.
This fast-paced family affair will take you on an emotional journey and most likely make you reflect on your own family dynamics.
The Humans is playing at the Hampstead Theatre until 13 October. For more information and tickets, click here.