ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Fear, anxiety and humor are center stage in a new play called "The Humans," which opens on Broadway tonight. Jeff Lunden reports that what begins as domestic comedy morphs into something more primal and even scary.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: On the surface, the setting for "The Humans" couldn't be more ordinary. A young woman and her boyfriend have moved into a two-level basement apartment in New York's Chinatown and invited her family over for Thanksgiving dinner. Over the course of 90 minutes, they do what families do. They laugh, they bicker, they express their love. But director Joe Mantello says the playwright Stephen Karam is up to much more.
JOE MANTELLO: He's so smart about how he's constructed the play and how it appears as if nothing's happening for quite a long time. And then you get to the end of it and you realized, oh.
LUNDEN: The oh factor is the way Karam has mashed up a couple of genres. He started "The Humans" intending to write a thriller with people crashing through windows and ghosts jumping out of closets. Then he fell in love with the characters.
STEPHEN KARAM: What ended up happening was I sort of, in spite of myself, ended up with a family play that is sort of infected by my love of the thriller genre.
LUNDEN: At one point in the play, the boyfriend describes a comic book he loves where monsters from another planet tell scary stories.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE HUMANS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) The scary stories they tell each other, they're all about us. The horror stories for the monsters are all about humans.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah, well, people are - you should meet my boss - no teeth on his back.
LUNDEN: When the play opened off-Broadway last fall, it got raves from most of the critics. Charles Isherwood of The New York Times was impressed by the way it captured a sense of dread, so many different kinds of dread.
CHARLES ISHERWOOD: The squeezed middle class, the fears that everyone has that the future's not going to be as bright as the past. At the same time, it's also a very funny play.
LUNDEN: Like when the boyfriend admits to the visiting family that he has a history of depression.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE HUMANS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I've been better for years. It's why I'm comfortable talking about it.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You take medicine for that?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Dad, that's rude to ask.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) It's OK.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I'm sorry, it's just, you know, in our family, we don't have that kind of depression.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Yeah, no, we just have a lot of stoic sadness.
LUNDEN: Stephen Karam has called his plays deeply autobiographical but not in the literal sense. He grew up in Scranton, Pa. to a Lebanese-American father and an Irish Catholic mother. Sarah Steele has collaborated with Karam four times. In "The Humans," she plays an aspiring but poor artist from Scranton, which might be considered a stand-in for the author who only quit his day job a few years ago. But Steele says...
SARAH STEELE: He's not one character in the play. I think when most people write stuff that's autobiographical, they're one character in a play. He's sort of all of the characters.
LUNDEN: And as "The Humans" progresses, it becomes clear that all the characters of this Irish Catholic clan are dealing with some profound personal issues, says Stephen Karam.
KARAM: I think the play is a little obsessed with exploring the existential horrors that we all experience - you know, our fear of death, our fear of poverty, our fear of ill health and losing the love of someone
LUNDEN: Even the set evokes fear. There are weird noises from upstairs, shadows in the apartment's only window, the lights go out one by one. And by the end, the patriarch of the family, a man haunted by his own secrets, is left alone on stage in the dark. Director Joe Mantello says it's a tricky balancing act.
MANTELLO: You don't want it to turn into an episode of "Scooby Doo" at the end. It really has to work on some sort of larger existential crisis that this man is having - his fear of being left, his fear of losing his family.
LUNDEN: But even if "The Humans" ends up being kind of a haunted house play, Karam feels the message is actually optimistic.
KARAM: I'm always amazed by how resilient and funny and just incredible people are in the face of all of these anxieties, which is why I think the play is really interested in how do we get up and move through our days even with these big existential horrors always kind of hanging over our heads?
LUNDEN: As "The Humans" suggests with humor and dignity, despite things that go bump in the night. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
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