Playwright Stephen Karam (“Sons of the Prophet,” “Speech and Debate”) infuses the traditional kitchen-sink family drama with qualities of horror in his portentous and penetrating work of psychological unease, “The Humans,” which gives dramatic shape to Franklin Roosevelt’s maxim about fearing fear itself. The play is receiving its premiere at the small American Theater Company in Chicago, which also originally launched the Pulitzer-winning and now Broadway-mounted “Disgraced.” The new play is helmed by PJ Paparelli, the theater’s artistic director and longtime Karam collaborator (the two wrote “Columbinus” together). Director Joe Mantello will remount the work when the Roundabout, which commissioned the play, produces it in Gotham next year.
The setting is purposefully bare, taking place at the new duplex apartment of a young couple Brigid (Kelly O’Sullivan) and Richard (Lance Baker) in New York’s Chinatown. Their furniture delivery has been delayed, but they’re still happy to invite Brigid’s family in from Scranton for a Thanksgiving dinner. Upstairs, there’s a chair and boxes; downstairs, in what is really the building’s basement, is a couch, a kitchen and a folding table and chairs where the family eats the holiday meal that Richard has prepared. Brigid is proud of the apartment’s spaciousness, acknowledging that they can only afford it because it was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, which her father, Eric (Keith Kupferer), is quick to point out. It’s one of many reasons he wishes his daughter would escape New York, as his now-wheelchair-bound and barely coherent mother, affectionately called Momo (Jean Moran), did two generations earlier.
David Ferguson’s set has jagged walls, which represent the damage the building has suffered, the notion being that we’re supposed to be peeking in on a family’s intimacies, and getting a certain sense of the characters’ psychic instability. That instability becomes the driving force of the play, an exploration of the fear and gnawing dread eating away at the troubled American working middle class.
Eric, who for nearly 30 years has worked in facilities at a Catholic school, has been having bad dreams. He waves off concerns about his insomnia, but he’s not above using it as an excuse for being a bit jumpy; he’s especially bothered by the loud, thumping noises that occasionally interrupt the dialogue from the apartment upstairs, or the less intrusive but no less eerie sounds of the building’s laundry and trash compactor, which come with having a living space in a basement. He also constantly peeks through the security bars on the upstairs windows whenever he sees someone walking in the alley (or the “courtyard,” as Brigid prefers to call it).
Over the course of the 90-minute play, written as a single scene, light bulbs start failing, a “mouse-sized cockroach” causes a good scream for the characters, and the thumping noises get louder, or at least seem to do so as the family’s deep anxieties bubble to the surface. It might be tempting to say it’s the family’s underlying dysfunction that’s generating the tension, but while there are hurt feelings aplenty, particularly in response to Brigid’s judgmental comments, the truth is that, as families go, this would have to be considered a fully functional one. There’s some typical over-drinking but no apparent drug problems, and while some secrets are revealed, Karam is careful to keep it all within a highly naturalistic, nonsensationalist realm. The Blakes are fundamentally a fortunate family.
The slow burn of increasing unease comes instead from Momo’s dementia and Aimee’s ulcerated colitis, from student debt and other financial anxieties, and from work and relationship stresses that impact all but are weighing especially heavily on Eric. Over time, the play becomes more and more about him, until the climactic moments focus on him onstage, alone and afraid.
Karam does succeed in creating an ominous feel, foreshadowing all sorts of possibilities that, in a genre piece, would have definite formulaic expectations. But this is not ultimately that type of work: The suspense he builds comes from not really knowing what, if anything, will happen, and unlike Conor McPherson, to whose work this one bears a bit of resemblance, Karam resists nods to the supernatural.
However, such restraint, while admirable and even bold in its own way, robs the play of any catharsis. And this production, while certainly capable, could go further in finding ways to expose the interior lives of its characters. While the performances are strong and mostly effective, one can imagine acting that is more raw and more vulnerable, that drives home the point that the scariest thing of all is oneself.