The Humans, Hampstead Theatre

“It seems like we’re in for a typical family drama. This is not the case.”

The Humans, a play by Stephen Karam, is a multiple Tony Award winner. Picking up four awards in the 2016 ceremony, including Best Play, the production has now finally flown across the to The Hampstead Theatre for a limited run, with its original Broadway cast. Described as ‘blisteringly funny and (a) deeply chilling drama’ as well as, by Karam, ‘a family thriller’ The Humans tries to venture into darker areas than your typical play about family issues. It may not fully pay off, but it is entertaining.

The 90-minute story is about three generations of the Blake family all coming together on Thanksgiving. This year they are gathering at Brigid’s new duplex apartment in Chinatown, New York. Brigid (Sarah Steele) has just moved in with her boyfriend, Richard (Arian Moayed) and not much has arrived yet to make the house a home. Dinner is being served on paper plates, furniture is minimal and the lights are temperamental but that’s the least of the family’s worries.

Parents, Erik and Deidre (Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell) struggle to understand, through generational differences, how their children are dealing with their own obstacles. In addition, Erik is thinking about the future due to ‘changes’ at work whilst Deidre is dealing with insecurity at her job (having bosses a fraction of her age despite her decades with the company) and how her daughters poke fun at her strong religious beliefs and the spam-style emails she sends to them to keep in touch. Brigid’s sister, Aimee (Cassie Beck) is failing to cope with a break-up from her girlfriend and the loss of her job due to chronic illness getting in the way of her hours. Finally, there is grandmother Momo, Erik’s mother (played by Lauren Klien) who is in the final stages of dementia.

With the set up and characters it seems like we are in for a typical family drama. This is not the case. With the darkened silent scenes, the sudden but frequent banging from the tenant upstairs and lights burning out, it seems like this production aims more towards a thriller. As there isn’t a major climax one could leave The Humans feeling slightly short-changed.

The dialogue (though very impressive with overlaps and cross-talk) can slip into sitcom at times and be a little too self-explanatory but the topics discussed at the dinner table are interesting and enlightening. Erik and Robert bump heads when Robert opens up about his depression and needing to take some time out from his job so he could find himself and ‘reboot’ his life. Erik looks at him oddly and replies: ‘To me, doing life twice seems like the only thing worse than doing it once.’ Erik then speaks to Brigid in similar confusion when she talks about her own struggles (money, career, lifestyle) but also attempting juice cleanses, yoga and similar: ‘If you’re so miserable, why are you trying to live forever?’ The quips are what keep the audience intrigued, especially in the latter half when the story gets rolling.

Joe Mantello’s direction is impressive and David Zinn’s two-level set is sublime. The performances from the cast are fantastic and you can see instantly why Briney and Houdyshell won their Tonys – they are magnificent.

The Humans has a final two weeks at The Hampstead Theatre and the run is nearly sold out – tickets can be bought from theatre’s website.


Photos: Tristram Kenton