NEW YORK (AP) — Just in time for the often-stressful holiday family dinner season comes "The Humans," a dark comedy about one family's often-fractious Thanksgiving gathering in uncertain times.
The blue-collar, Irish Catholic Blake family is given a compassionate exploration by Stephen Karam, a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his drama "Sons of the Prophet" and an expert at writing natural-sounding dialogue for ordinary people.
Karam's warm look at family dynamics, perceptively directed by Joe Mantello, opened Sunday night off-Broadway at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre. Over one scene in 90 real-time minutes, the dollhouse-style presentation takes place in an unusual lower-Manhattan basement duplex. The close-knit family drives one another crazy in loving ways while trying unsuccessfully not to share their worries.
Twenty-something struggling musician Brigid Blake, (Sarah Steele, affectionate and spunky), has just rented the oddly noisy place with her older boyfriend, Richard (given amiable charm by Arian Moayed). The spiral staircase is perfect for eavesdropping, and Mantello keeps the cast in smooth, constant motion on both levels until they finally gather at the dinner table.
Something seems to be brewing between Brigid's working-class parents, deftly portrayed by Reed Birney as nervous, platitude-spouting Erik, and Janye Houdyshell in wryly humorous form as superstitious, loving mom Deirdre. They've driven up from Pennsylvania with Momo, Erik's Alzheimer's-affected mother. Lauren Klein is devastatingly accurate in her portrayal of Momo's dementia, and the family's joy is touching to watch when Momo briefly comes to life as her old self.
Karam clearly understands the instability affecting the American middle-class, and provides an especially unlucky lawyer in the character of Aimee, Brigid's older sister (Cassie Beck, both funny and touching). She's recently been knocked out of the partner track at her firm, dumped by her girlfriend and is facing major surgery. The older generation isn't faring much better, as Erik plaintively complains about the ever-rising cost of living, "Dontcha think it should cost less to be alive?"
Despite their personal problems, family members rally to participate in good-humored teasing and their traditions of song and prayer, even as unpleasant confessions may bubble up. When Erik reluctantly shares a nightmare he just had about a monster, comic book-loving Richard quietly makes a seminal point of the play as he comments, "The horror stories for the monsters are all about humans."
Mantello expertly stages overlapping conversations in different rooms on the two-level set where David Zinn has created an extra-creaky old Manhattan apartment building. This basement has eerie overtones, skillfully enhanced by Justin Townsend's flickering lighting and Fitz Patton's sound design. Loud crashing sounds above add to an increasingly melodramatic ambiance.
Even if the Blakes can't quite keep all the harsh realities of life at bay, Karam's empathetic rendering of a family enduring setbacks leaves the audience hopeful that they will find strength in their love for one another.