Shows Worth Seeing:
By Stephen Karam
Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre
111 W. 46th St.
Nothing can bore us into a stupor or shock us into lingering disquiet more effectively than intensely realistic plays meant to mirror ordinary contemporary life. The Humans isn’t the triumph of slow-cooking, pedestrian disquiet that Annie Baker’s John is (as some critics have claimed), but it is an impressive achievement in that vein. It manages to both bore and shock within the space of its intermissionless 100 minutes.
Stephen Karam’s canvas is a purposefully mundane Thanksgiving where a pair of unexceptionally middle-class, middle-aged parents from Scranton, a senile grandmother, and a heartbroken, soon-to-be-unemployed lawyer sister from Philadelphia visit the dingy Chinatown apartment where the younger sister (an aspiring composer who works as a bartender) and her boyfriend (a social-work grad student) have just moved in together. The performers in Joe Mantello’s production—all pitch perfect—render these people with finespun delicacy and deep sympathy, drawing out not only innumerable sharp individual details but also interesting submerged rivalries and irritations in all the relationships. For me, however, the play nevertheless grew irritatingly tedious during its first hour because it gave no hint of rising above its myriad of minutiae—things like mom and dad’s money worries, sis’s work problems and ulcerative colitis, other sis’s student loans, burned-out light bulbs, the stock of toilet paper, grandma’s dementia, and much, much more.
In the final twenty minutes, thankfully, the irritation turns out to serve a powerful purpose. With just a few deft theatrical moves, Karam and Mantello flip the action to reveal traces of terrible ghosts haunting the humdrum reality. The reversal is cued by a sudden plot revelation—which I won’t disclose and which isn’t really a bombshell in any case—but the real change happens because of the shift to a new, less realistic footing for the action where surging emotions can quickly gather and become unendurable. It’s a clever, purely emotional climax that reaches deep into what had seemed an unaccountably dull story, uncovering pulsing monsters one hardly suspected were there.