There’s a surprising urgency to Stephen Karam’s adaptation of his Tony-winning play, The Humans. The setup – a dysfunctional multigenerational family descends into a Manhattan apartment for Thanksgiving – is very familiar and the execution dangerously scenic.
But Karam’s intimate and increasingly oppressive drama is a marvel, not just as writing (his play was also shortlisted for a Pulitzer) or acting (a monumental Jayne Houdyshell reprise her Tony award-winning role alongside ‘a flawless cast not transferred) but overall design, a rare journey from stage to screen that is worth it.
We are in the new home of Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Richard (Steven Yeun), a relatively new single couple who have just moved in, the furniture is still waiting to be delivered. They welcome Brigid’s family: her sister, Aimee (Amy Schumer), arriving from Philadelphia and her parents, Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Houdyshell), as well as Erik’s mother, Momo (June Squibb), all come from Scranton, Pennsylvania.
There is the familiar mix of conflict, resentment, and secrecy, but all of them are presumably mundane and Human quality to them (stoicism over sensationalism) and Karam’s delicate handwriting grips us firmly even as they unfold quietly. But while his characters might not turn up their volume, his sound design takes over, a collection of knocking, cracking, and intrusive thumps, which push us to the edge of our seat, where we stay. for most of the film.
There isn’t a single wrong note among his ensemble, which bickers, pushes and soothes with such relaxed ease that it’s surprising they haven’t done the same performance together twice a day over the course of the last year. Schumer is a special surprise in his first compelling dramatic performance, his palpable and aching grief surfacing in a painfully recognizable call with an ex before an explosion of tears in front of Jenkins, who we’ve seen in vaguely similar territory before but never so far. heartbreaking .
There are references to a culture change, an age gap, a difference in class and religion, but Karam never positions his drama as the one we need now. It is a time and a place, but comfortably, quietly, with confidence. There is something both reassuring and terrifying about all of this, the resilient warmth and friendliness of family providing comfort as the existential horror of what it all represents cools us down simultaneously. Humans are going to haunt me and it’s going to haunt you too.