NEW YORK (AP) — A sickening thud is the first thing you hear at Stephen Karam's powerful Broadway debut "The Humans." It's an unexplained noise, and unsettling. There are clearly unseen forces at work here.
The dark comedy opened Thursday at the Helen Hayes Theatre with a terrific cast and an unsentimental look at the way we live today — anxiety-ridden, having little control over our environment or bodies, forever stretched and always a step from the abyss. It is an absolute triumph.
The play is composed entirely of a single 90-minute, real-time scene set during a Thanksgiving dinner in a run-down New York apartment, one with exposed, grotty pipes, harsh lighting and poor phone reception. It's a duplex, but an inverted one — a literal and symbolic basement.
It's the new pad of twentysomething struggling musician Brigid Blake (a superb Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend, Richard (the charming, likable Arian Moayed). The movers haven't come yet so folding tables and plastic cups must suffice.
The rest of the Blake family has driven in from Pennsylvania to celebrate the holiday. There's Reed Birney as the stressed-out patriarch Erik, Janye Houdyshell as the gossipy, gently needling mom, and dad's Alzheimer's-affected mother, (touchingly played by Lauren Klein.) Aimee, Brigid's older sister (a vivid Cassie Beck), also arrives, weighed down my medical ailments and heartbreak.
Each one of these characters is putting up a brave face, but lingering resentments soon boil up — mostly about money — and it is clear their bodies are betraying them — colons, minds, backs and stomachs are failing. As the father says: "Everything you have goes."
Group dinners that expose unseen rifts between people are popular devices in the theater and "The Humans" follows a noble line that connects Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" and Ayad Akhtar's "Disgraced." Karam, a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his drama "Sons of the Prophet," can add "The Humans" honorably to the list.
What makes his drama so visceral is his soundscape. There are odd noises throughout the play — mechanical rumbles, click-clacks, running footsteps, the crashes of pots and pans. (Fitz Patton did the fantastic sound design.)
The script crackles with forced joy and sadness — "Dontcha think it should cost less to be alive?" asks the father — and Joe Mantello directs with a flair for both family dynamics (watch the sisters or the young couple give each other knowing glances) and a comfort with a sort of Edgar Allan Poe macabre.
But this cast, who all have made the leap from the show's debut off-Broadway last year at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre, manage to add that necessary level of pathos, deep familial love and humanity to a stirring play with a title we can all relate to.