The young playwright Stephen Karam seems most interested in human responses to adversity, with a special emphasis placed on the physical challenges of illness. His 2012 play Sons of the Prophet was an extraordinarily sensitive piece of work that featured revelatory moments between the actors, and the best scenes in that play went beyond any clear point of exchange between people and into scarily uncharted emotional areas: connections that cannot be explained, and connections that cannot be denied.
Karam’s new play The Humans has garnered rave reviews and has already been announced for a Broadway transfer next year. It is a more conventional play than Sons of the Prophet was, doggedly realistic and unsparingly grim, and it has the courage of its own heavy dramatic load. Erik (Reed Birney) and Deirdre Blake (Jayne Houdyshell) are visiting their daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) for Thanksgiving at her new apartment in Chinatown in Manhattan, where she has just moved in with her slightly older boyfriend Richard (Arian Moayed). The Blakes’ daughter Aimee (Cassie Beck) is also in attendance, as is “Momo” (Lauren Klein), Erik’s mother, who has descended into senile dementia.
The Humans charts the progress of this Thanksgiving dinner in a starkly uninviting apartment, and Karam avoids the usual clichés of dysfunctional family dramas. Over the course of the meal, we learn a lot about the Blakes, but there is nothing exceptional about them and there aren’t even any particularly exceptional secrets to be revealed. Karam closely observes their behavior with each other to the point where it feels like eavesdropping on just about any family gathering. The Blakes don’t have much money, and the care and feeding of Momo is getting to be very difficult. Aimee and Brigid have their problems too, with work and with personal relationships, though Brigid’s relationship to Richard seems fairly solid. Karam makes Richard a very decent person, never scoring any points off of him. In fact, these are all decent people, even if Brigid sometimes veers off into petulant cruelty toward her mother, who has a solid religious faith.
Karam describes here just why most people might find religious faith not only an expedient comfort but a necessity, and he bravely kills any audience laughter by the end of the play. Like Annie Baker, Karam is not interested in pleasing an audience in the usual ways. There is nothing slick about his work, and there are moments toward the end of The Humans that are almost unbearably painful, and Karam doesn’t offer you any kind of relief from them. But when you are dealing with illness, age and lack of money, life doesn’t offer much relief, either, and so Karam dares to stage a scene that is like a worst nightmare of family life, something you would give anything to forget.
The Humans is not an easy or comforting play. In fact, it is so forbiddingly detailed in its focus and message that some of us might be hoping for some kind of leavening somewhere, some expansion of scope to offer some relief, because life does often offer that kind of leavening, too. Karam has written what might become a classic family play, but as he keeps writing and as he gets older, he will likely find ways to be more merciful to both his characters and his audience.
For tickets for The Humans, visit roundabouttheatre.org