Experiencing The Humans, now at Playhouse Square, is like falling into an Edward Hopper painting for 100 minutes. Hopper, the American realist painter, is known for works such as "Nighthawks," where people occupy the same space in a late-night diner but are still perceptively and permanently alone.
Hopper's paintings can give you chills just from their very ordinariness. And in a similar way, playwright Stephen Karam has constructed his deftly titled play The Humans to reflect how all of us inhabit a world that is often worrisome and hostile — even when we're together with family.
You see, the Blake family has gathered for a Thanksgiving dinner at the Manhattan duplex apartment of Brigid and her boyfriend Rich. But this residence in Chinatown is no flashy Fifth Avenue suite. The living space is composed of a basement unit, in a flood-prone area no less, with no windows. That dank space is connected to a couple rooms upstairs by a less-than-grand winding staircase.
In addition, there are thunderous noises emanating from the apartment immediately above theirs, and now and then a person walking around in the airshaft space they amusingly refer to as an interior courtyard. The rooms themselves are spare, static and a bit depressing. Indeed, the scenic design by David Zinn looks like a Hopper painting, even including the narrow, horizontal cross-section strip of regularly-spaced joists that connect the floor of the upper area to the ceiling of the room below.
Into this setting come the holiday visitors including Brigid's sister Aimee, a lawyer from Philadelphia, along with their parents Erik and Dierdre, and Erik's mother Momo who are visiting from Scranton, PA. Momo is mostly confined to a wheelchair and is submerged in dementia. Initially, it seems like a traditional setup for family drama, full of revealed secrets and all the sturm and drang we associate with family get-togethers.
And there is some of that. But in actuality, Karam is after something more subtle and substantial in this finely crafted piece. For the bulk of the play, the relatives (and boyfriend) get along quite well. But as they talk, we get a fine-tuned sense of who they are, how they relate to each other, and the very specific stresses that each are dealing with.
This conversation is so realistic and often so funny — thanks to the exceptional actors and the direction by Joe Mantello — that you almost feel the characters might turn to you and wait for you to join in. You're in this painting with them, and there's no easy escape.
The pater familias, Erik, is portrayed by Richard Thomas in a sublimely well-controlled performance. This hard-working but not-so-successful man has some well-earned, wry observations to share ("Don't you think it should cost less to be alive?"). But he is also haunted by dreams of a faceless woman. As his wife Dierdre, Pamela Reed is a spark plug of self-assurance fueled by her Catholic faith and a cursory reading of scientific websites.
Brigid (a relentlessly optimistic Daisy Eagan) is a fledgling composer trying to manage financially with Rich (Luis Vega), who is a 38-year-old student working toward a social work degree. But he has a substantial trust fund waiting for him in two years, a fact that Erik notes with a degree of envy. Aimee, given a spot-on rendering by Therese Plaehn, is quite a mess. She's battling ulcerative colitis and recovering from a breakup with her girlfriend.
As the afternoon darkens, in more ways than one, the tension also rises, sometimes almost imperceptibly. We learn that Erik and Brigid had a narrow brush with the 9/11 tragedy, and the destruction of Hurricane Sandy lurks in the background.
It would be easy to criticize the playwright for over-reaching, since he attempts to weave in so many disparate issues that touch on the personal, political, natural and even supernatural. What saves The Humans from being a tired catchall of dysfunction is that it is played in a minor key, without bombast or overstatement. There are no obvious villains or heroes.
Perhaps the most mysterious element of the play is Momo, played with admirable consistency by Lauren Klein. Her unintelligible mutterings and screams seem to speak as much truth as the others' words.
In short, these are just human beings, victims of both the actions they have taken and the inertia that keeps them from working things out together. Like the joists inside the cross-section, they stay in their established positions to keep everything in place. But there are dark spaces between those joists that have yet to be explored. Those are the places this play illuminates, briefly and tantalizingly.
As amusing as the play often is, there is a forlorn melancholy at its heart that Edward Hopper would recognize. And it's why The Humans will stay with you long after you leave the theater.