A family of five meets for Thanksgiving dinner in the apartment that a daughter shares with her new boyfriend. It’s not a promising premise for a play.
Now imagine that play as if it were a horror movie in which people band together in some dark house to protect themselves from zombies, vampires, or the blob until they’re saved by the morning sun.
The Blake family serves turkey in Stephen Karam’s new play “The Humans,” which opened Sunday at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, but regardless of that nod to Thanksgiving, their day together resembles a horror movie. And there’s no morning sun.
It’s obvious from the beginning that it’s not going to be a sunny holiday. For one, Joe Mantello is directing, and he’s clearly up to something in the very first scene: The father Erik Blake (Reed Birney making an average Joe character something extraordinary) is more than alone in his daughter’s apartment; in fact, he looks like he’s stranded here; and from up above him, there’s a whole lot of banging going on. It’s serious banging, too, the kind that makes you jump in your seat.
Fortunately, other family members soon appear, from the corridor, from the bathroom, and the ominous banging soon runs counterpoint to the clanging pipes, the groaning of a compactor, the whirring machines from the laundry room. All the while, everyone is upbeat and civil, making the best of the fact that the grandmother (Lauren Klein) is confined to a wheelchair. Less acknowledged is the undercurrent of resentment that keeps popping up to the surface. Their talk is engaging, often amusing, until it utterly devours this family get-together.
The Blakes have much to bicker and complain about. In addition to money and health problems, the younger daughter, Brigid (Sarah Steele repeating her perky kid from “The Country House”), has rented an apartment with a new boyfriend, Richard Saad (the magnificently understated Arian Moayed). It’s a basement apartment, which is why the sun never shines here. Worse, it’s near the site of the old World Trade Center, which upsets the father. The mother (Jayne Houdyshell, a comfortable but frayed pillow of a mom) fears that if there’s another Superstorm Sandy the place will flood, and has brought a care package complete with batteries, flashlight, storm lantern, and a Virgin Mary statue. It seems Brigid and Richard have no plans to marry.
Karam’s dialogue is masterful in the way it sets the boyfriend Richard apart from the Blake family, which includes an older daughter (Cassie Beck) who has recently broken up with her girlfriend. Beyond conciliatory, Richard keeps agreeing with the parents, and when their views don’t coincide, he apologizes or switches his position a little too quickly. Moayed makes these shifts by merely changing the temperature of his tone. His Richard is the peacemaker — until he’s not, and begins to talk about his dreams, much to Brigid’s embarrassment.
Early in his play, Karam has Richard tell a favorite monster story in which the humans are the ones to fear. They’re the creatures, after all, who are always trying to kill off the monsters, and usually they succeed. The Blakes are obsessed with hurricanes and terrorist attacks when it’s the day-to-day worries about unemployment, illness, romance, and money that are the real horror show. Those problems don’t sound as scary as zombies and vampires, but the suspense in “The Humans” builds right up to the moment that the apartment lights go out for good.
“I never thought life would be so expensive,” one character says. It’s funny because it’s so frightening.