The Humans: Theater Review

Despite the ominous noises sounding from above and outside the surroundings of the bleak (if magnificent by New York standards) apartment of ‘The Humans,’ it’s the plaintive cries of laughter and tears from the people within that gives this play its most terrifying clamor. While it is very much a New York tale, ‘The Humans’ is also a tale for all humanity. Set at a Thanksgiving dinner, it’s an unflinchingly stark look at one family under the eroding influence of time. Each of them seeks purpose and meaning in his or her own, often-troubled, way – and it’s to playwright Stephen Karam’s credit that they barely get any resolution.

Tension mounts as secrets are revealed, but this isn’t a pot-boiler. Rather it’s a look at the crushing and devastating toll time takes on a family, and what strange, frightening and terrifying creatures we are behind the safety of our make-shift homes. As secrets are revealed, the post 9/11 world of New York City tries to rebuild itself amid the wreckage of time that will not be stilled. The subsequent healing of a family finds difficult fruition in their increasingly-tenuous ties to each other. An aging grandparent, lost to dementia, further shows the relentlessness of time, as does the physical deterioration of the matriarch and the ongoing sickness of a daughter. No one is getting any younger here. Worse than that, even the youngest characters have their unspoken issues, told in omissions and conversations hidden from view.

There is a refreshingly touching take on the overly-sentimentalized notion of marriage, positing the idea that it’s an institution that can be the foundation that keeps everything – even a family on the verge of falling apart – together. That echoes with its own death-like knell, and as with many things happening here it’s an idea that is as poisonous as it is hopeful.

Despite a late-hour revelation, the love among the family is tangible – they even go so far as to sing together at one point. This is ensemble acting at its best – each actor so attuned to their character they know each and every move inside and out. That ease with one another becomes paramount as outside forces – and possibly other-worldly events – threaten with every bump in the night.

Under the masterful direction of Joe Mantello, the play works so well due in no small part to the excellent ensemble. Together, they manage to craft the vibrant beating heart of a family, even in the most doleful of surroundings. Written with a brittle and brutal eloquence, ‘The Humans’ is a dark, modern take on how our own family life can sometimes feel like a foreign land. As evening descends, and a brief glimpse of what may or not be a supernatural being or a neighbor hurries past, it’s difficult to tell who is more scared – the humans on the inside or whatever’s on the outside peering in. As each room goes dark, it illuminates just how alien-like we sometimes seem from a distance, and how reassuringly human too.

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