Making films based on single-set stage plays has always posed the dilemma of whether to remain faithful to the text at the risk of visual tedium or “open it up” but perhaps lose intensity and focus in the process. Florian Zeller recently conquered the problem, and then some, with his bold visual approach to the film version of his play The Father. Now, American playwright Stephen Karam has done the same in his big-screen directorial debut with his insidiously fine adaptation of his own 2015 Pulitzer finalist and 2016 Tony Award-winning play The Humans which opens in theaters via A24 on November 24 and will be available to stream on Showtime the same day.
In both The Father and The Humans, the directors have augmented the impact of their plays — each talkathons limited to single settings onstage — via the diabolically shrewd strategy of making the spaces where the action takes place at least as important as any of the people occupying them. You could even argue that they exceed the power of their inhabitants to become absolute determinants in their lives.
One doesn’t know whether Karam might have seen Zeller’s film, which premiered in January 2020, before Covid shut everything down. Whether he did or not, both writer-directors succeeded by making the respective apartments full-blown characters in their own rights, ones with overbearing and insistent personalities that, especially in the case of The Humans, become more dominant and ominous than any single individual.
One could scarcely count the number of plays in which family gatherings, under circumstances either welcomed or forced, result in the unpleasant dredging up of old issues, grudges, secrets, desires, resentments and regrets. This has been a principal strain in all of playwriting, perhaps especially in the United States, over the past century, and the set-up of The Humans falls incontrovertibly into this category. Here, the extended Blake family assembles for Thanksgiving in the barely furnished New York Chinatown apartment of Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun), where they’ve just moved in.
Hosting dinner may ostensibly serve as the occasion to inaugurate the new domicile, but there’s all too plainly very little to celebrate at the moment. Up from Scranton, old-fashioned mom Deidre (Tony-winner Jayne Houdyshell) is seriously religious and doesn’t care for her daughter’s co-habiting without sanction of marriage. Her husband Erik (Richard Jenkins) may not quite merit the title of patriarch, given the shambles of his life and status, but he does, after a fashion, have a head on his shoulders.
Arriving from Philly is Brigid’s sister Aimee (Amy Schumer), who’s just broken up with her girlfriend, and rounding out the group of occasionally cheerful malcontents is Grandma Momo (June Squibb), who’s out of commission with Alzheimer’s. No one’s going to be playing Monopoly or poker this evening.
Given this distressed lot, one might feel the need to brace oneself for a bumpy night, as Bette Davis memorably it. No one in this crowd seems especially sharp, distinguished or insightful. And yet they almost immediately engage; their everyday repartee feels vibrant, not with wit exactly, but with an expressive edge that brings each character distinctively alive. Quite quickly, each individual makes his or her mark and, for all their shortcomings and disappointments in life, they emerge as sharply drawn and interesting in their own very different ways.
But no matter how individualistic, colorful, funny, irreverent or assertive any of the characters may be, none can compete with the elephant not only in the room, but in NYC at large. With the spectre of 9/11 still hanging over the city, the vibes connoting vulnerability, uncertainty, civic instability, the unforeseen, and everything else that could possibly instill one with a full dose of fear and paranoia is to be felt with every inhaled breath.
Almost everything about the downtown pre-war apartment emanates insecurity, deterioration and unknown threats. At any given moment, scary sounds, weird knocks, signals of structural weakness, dysfunctional services and filth assert themselves. The swarm of old housing towers, generally seen only partially, are photographed in a way so as to make you feel surrounded. Light barely creeps in, clanging metal is heard; the sun, moon and stars remain rumors or memories from the past; you can barely tell if it’s day or night — and other occupants of this vast dwelling are also rumors or jolting scares. If there’s still a real world out there, we don’t see it.
New York City has been both celebrated and denigrated in movies for as long as they have existed. With the window views so boxed in that you can barely glimpse anything, the metropolis hardly plays a physical role in The Humans at all, and yet it dominates everything; from the opening moments, you’re made to feel confined and afraid of what might be out there. The limited views of what’s outside are threatening, fear-producing, and the sounds punctuate the proceedings like shocks to your very being.
Onstage, this sense of claustrophobia didn’t exist. To the contrary, the play unfolded on an imposing two-story set that allowed for great mobility and sense of openness. Virtually the opposite is the case here, as the fearful characters are jolted by those random noises that are individually annoying but cumulatively create a sense of virtually constant assault by unidentifiable forces. It’s genuinely unsettling.
The actors are uniformly impeccable; none are stars and they’re all perfection. This is one of the rare one-set theater pieces that has actually been enhanced and deepened through its transfer to the screen.