“The Humans” at the Unicorn Balances Humor and Dread

Stephen Karam’s “The Humans,” a big hit in New York and London, is a play with an intriguing premise, detailed characters and a palpable sense of foreboding. The production now onstage at the Unicorn Theatre showcases nice work by talented actors who wrestle gamely with material that seems designed to remain just beyond their reach.

On the most obvious level, Karam’s play is a family drama centered around an uneasy Thanksgiving get-together in which anxieties and resentments come to the surface during an afternoon of drinking and feasting. But it’s also a meditation on members of the middle class unable to enjoy the rewards of a stacked-deck economy. In the final stretch it takes on characteristics of a horror tale, as a growing sense of impending doom becomes a smothering (and mystifying) presence. 

The Unicorn production, directed by Darren Sextro, makes the most of the play’s central conceit: That the dramatic events unfold in real time. The show runs about 90 minutes without an intermission. 

The setup: Brigid Blake (Ellen Kirk) and her boyfriend Richard Saad (L. Roi Hawkins) busily prepare dinner in the basement apartment they’ve just moved into not far from the site of the World Trade Center. The apartment is a two-level affair, with the main entrance and living room on the upper level connected by a spiral staircase to the kitchen and dining area a flight below. There’s only one upstairs window, which looks out on an alley littered with cigarette butts.

We soon meet the family members: Brigid’s parents, Dierdre (Cathy Barnett) and Erik (Marc Liby), her older sister Aimee (Katie Karel) and their grandmother Momo (Margaret Shelby), who suffers from dementia and is mostly confined to a wheelchair. It doesn’t take long for us to get a sense of the burdens weighing on each of them. Brigid, a musician and composer, can’t find work and has a mountain of college loans. Aimee has just lost her job at a law firm and has serious health problems. Erik and Diedre, common-sense members of the working class, have challenges that are only revealed late in the story. Momo, who seems haunted by a reality she can no longer express, is given to sudden outbursts that make little sense. Richard, meanwhile, manages to stay above the fray, adopting a diplomatic pose that allows him to disagree without hostility. 

Now at this point you’re probably thinking: What a dreary play. But it isn’t. Karam finds opportunities for bursts of humor, quirky dialogue and odd character traits — especially when Erik and Richard begin comparing their dream lives.

Barnett once again demonstrates an unequaled command of comic timing and Shelby plays Momo with a sense of commitment that is as humorous as it is disturbing. Karel balances deadpan humor with anxiety as Aimee. Somehow the connection between Brigid and Richard just isn’t there, despite the efforts of the talented Hawkins and Kirk. The standout performance is delivered by Liby, who finds all the levels of guilt, anguish and skepticism that coexist in Erik. In a sense, Erik is our guide, although that doesn’t become clear until late in the show. 

In the end, this is a play about fear and its ability to push us in directions we don’t really want to go.

David Kiehl’s sound design captures all the ominous thumps, bumps and tortured mechanical sounds reverberating through the building the playwright calls for. Art Kent’s lighting is effective. Jason Coale, a talented scenic designer, does what he can with the available space on the Levin Stage but has two few options to do more than suggest a two-story apartment.

So, yes, there are flaws. But the play and this production — mysterious, comic and evocative — give viewers a lot to ponder.

“The Humans” runs through March 31 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call 816-531-7529 or go to www.unicorntheatre.org. 

CategoriesTheater Reviews
Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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