Turning a Broadway hit into a film usually goes one of two ways: either you cash in on audience goodwill and force them to endure an uninspired, overlong restaging (see: Cats); or you carve out something fresh that actually feels tailored for the screen. Stephen Karam’s The Humans, adapted from his Tony Award-winning one-act play, is the latter: a slight but stirring chamber piece about a working-class family convening for Thanksgiving dinner in post-9/11 Manhattan.
Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her doting boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun) open up their new but creaky home to her parents Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, reprising her role from the original production) and Erik (Richard Jenkins), her sister Aimee (Amy Schumer), and her dementia-stricken grandmother “Momo” (June Squibb). Unfolding in real-time, pleasantries quickly thaw into deep-seated anxieties that no one is fit to observe. Hot topics include: God, dieting, money troubles, sex positions, and superfoods.
The ensemble will no doubt be the biggest pull for those unfamiliar with the play. Feldstein’s background in theatre is on full, shimmering display as Brigid contends with her parents’ mounting criticisms; Schumer gives a career-best performance as a chronically-ill attorney still hung-up on her ex-girlfriend; Erik’s 28 years of thankless janitorial labour are hard-worn on Jenkins’ face, which softens whenever he tends to Momo; Houdyshell’s matriarch feels naturally lived-in; and Yeun’s mediating politesse is a delight.
Part of the play’s novelty was its set design: a dilapidated prewar duplex; the two levels creating a diptych of a simple family. The eye never quite knew where to land, flitting between floors in search of a focal point. The film inevitably loses this spatiality through cuts, but Karam uses the medium to his advantage, employing extreme close-ups (if maybe a few too many) and framing his characters between doorways to give the impression of a dollhouse.
Traipsing the same congested hallways as Emma Seligman’s 2021 debut feature, Shiva Baby, Karam understands the innate horrors of family gatherings. The apartment takes on the quality of a haunted house, with the sounds of trash compactors, plumbing, washing machines, and a heavy-footed upstairs neighbour, all adding to the sense of claustrophobia. The walls are paper-thin, allowing the sounds to eat away at the Blakes as they inch tentatively towards dessert.
The Humans won’t work for many – it’s a slow burn with a mean ending. Some may insist that the story lacks cogency offstage, but it’s those frenetic, intimate and often senseless moments that justify its title.