THE HUMANS, Mophead Productions in association with Red Line Productions at the Old Fitz, 7 September-6 October 2018. Photography by Clare Hawley
Earlier this year, in an interview in the Boston Globe, Stephen Karam, 38, said of his latest and most successful play in an already prolific career, that he began The Humans while thinking about, “the things that were keeping me up at night.” Most people watching the 90-minute, one-act play will relate to that and also the insomnia-inducing “things”.
However, what distinguishes The Humans from other gritty, family-Thanksgiving-dinner and chewing-each-other-along-with-the-turkey dramas is the humour; and something else. To the Globe Karam said, “...it started with a question. What if you could find a way to write about this creeping feeling of dread and these existential fears that a lot of us carry...in a story that actually conjured up the dread and anxiety I was trying to explore? But also make people laugh!”
Making the idea concrete came about through a used bookstore copy of a 1937 self-help book. Think and Grow Rich contained a chapter about the six “ghosts of fear,” and Karam was on his way. “I thought what if each character is carrying the weight of one of these human fears?” And so, as well as the laughter, a little bit of Alfred Hitchcock lurks in the shadows.
The Blake family is beset with the archetypal malaise of contemporary America: the suddenly uncertain climb of the parents, Erik (Arkie Michael) and Deirdre (Di Adams) up the social ladder from blue collar to lower middle class, and their horror at seeing themselves and their adult children on the slippery economic slope as it threatens to take them down again.
The sense of impending doom (The Humans was first staged in 2015) is symbolised by the plight of Erik’s mother “Momo” (Diana McLean). She has Alzheimer’s and communicates sporadically but mostly speaks a language of her own as she rages at fate and unknown demons from the trap of her wheelchair.
Splashing around in an indigestible slush of love, exasperation and anxiety, are lesbian lawyer grand-daughter Aimee (Eloise Snape), whose girlfriend has naturally chosen Thanksgiving to dump her. And the family’s youngest, Brigid (Madeleine Jones), is a musician heaven help us, in whose ratty duplex on the lowest part of Manhattan’s Lower Westside they have gathered.
Brigid and Richard (Reza Momenzada), have just moved in together and they juggle the demands of the traditional lunch, questions about their marital status and super-noisy upstairs neighbour, criticisms of the apartment – of which they’re inordinately proud – as well as the usual rising tensions of a family get-together. It’s an explosive and unexpectedly funny concoction and all too recognisable – at first.
The Humans won the Tony Award for Best Play and was a Pulitzer finalist for Drama, both in 2016 after transferring from Off- to Broadway. It continues to tour the US and has captured the imagination of audiences and actors alike. In this beautifully-rendered production by director Anthea Williams, it quickly becomes obvious why this is.
The family members are instantly identifiable, realistically ordinary and without cliche. Williams draws subtle and cleverly detailed performances from all the actors: a look, a grimace, a pause, a sly grin, a perfectly timed quip - these are the icing on the cake of a finely tuned ensemble.
Central to the play and its arc is the unseen upstairs neighbour. Her presence is initially signalled by the kind of galumphing footsteps and general nuisance that can make apartment living a nightmare. As time goes on, however, the block seems to take on a nightmare life of its own (sound design: Clemence Williams).
Brigid and Richard’s apartment is less successful both as a concept and execution: the stipulated two levels of upper entryway and lower living-kitchen area, plus the all-important window onto a gloomy light-well are cramped and distracting. A curious thing as designer Jonathan Hindmarsh was also responsible for possibly the best-ever set in the Old Fitz: the split-level scaffolding-plus-pool for Metamorphoses (see review and images in the StageNoise archive).
Nevertheless, the play and the actors transcend all to bring these people to surprising life – their once comfortable lives turning out to be a tangle of growing uncertainty, past and present. Aimee the lawyer has been laid off, Brigid is tending bar rather than composing. Richard unsettles the precarious dynamic even further because he has a trust fund in his future. It compounds Erik’s wariness around him and the unspoken suspicion that the social ground is shifting beneath their feet.
The result is a haunting, beautifully realised comedy-drama whose roots are firmly in the everyday, but whose ambitions and effect are mysteriously – and unexplained – of another world. It might be the imagination, it might be the sum of our fears, rational and otherwise. We are left in the dark – quite literally – wondering about the fate of humans. Recommended.