The Humans is mesmerizing from the moment you take your seat. The expansive two-story set is a dingy apartment with unadorned, off-white walls. The bottom level is two tables of different heights pushed together for Thanksgiving dinner, a small couch and kitchenette. Upstairs is a bathroom and a "bedroom"—an inflatable mattress pushed into an enclave by the main entrance.
It's the new home of millennial Brigid (Quinlan Fitzgerald) and her boyfriend Rich (John San Nicolas). They're hosting their first Thanksgiving dinner for Brigid's family: her Baby Boomer parents Deirdre (Luisa Sermol) and Erik (Robert Pescovitz), sister Aimee (Val Landrum) and paternal grandmother "Momo" (Vana O'Brien).
It's the first time Deirdre and Erik have seen their daughter's Manhattan apartment, and there's a lot they don't like about it. There are roaches. The only window looks into an "interior courtyard" that they can't access, and onto which smokers dump their ashtrays. The neighborhood makes them nervous.
"I think if you moved out to Pennsylvania your quality of life would shoot up," Erik says with note-perfect dad-irony that suggests he genuinely thinks he's correct, but also knows his daughter will never take the advice.
That generational tension is the basis for New York playwright Stephen Karam's sprawling, realist play. Though the family's bonds are unbreakable, they're perpetually pulled taut by irreconcilable world views.
The Humans embarked on its first national tour earlier this year after a multiple-Tony award-winning stint on Broadway. But Artists Repertory Theatre received special permission from Karam to mount its own production, since Karam worked with Artist's Rep early in his career.
With its naturalistic dialogue and loose sense of plot, The Humans is in many ways a traditional living-room drama. But it uses convention as the basis for subtle yet effective experimentation like its two-story set. Proof of Karam's grasp of humanity is his ability to write millennial characters with humor, but without making everything they do a punchline.
Erik tries to connect with Rich, the high-minded grad student, by occasionally pacing over to the window, the only place in the apartment where his phone gets reception, to check the score of the Lions game. "Detroit is up 7-0," he tells him, but Rich hardly reacts. Later, Brigid asks her parents if they eat any superfoods. "I went and bought blueberries last week," Deirdre responds. "They're not cheap."
But The Humans is not just about generational divides. It's also about loneliness and isolation within your own family. Even while participating in an annual tradition, each person is isolated from the rest of the group in at least one meaningful way.
The split-level set allows each character a fleeting moment to tell their individual story. In one scene, Aimee leaves the rest of the group to go up stairs and call her ex-girlfriend. She paces nervously while trying to keep the call alive, but it's no use. When her ex hangs up, she's crushed, and retreats to the inflatable mattress to sit alone.
Like most of the play, it's a small, isolated moment. But it's the ability to make even the most banal moments so impactful that makes The Humans endlessly fascinating.
SEE IT: The Humans is at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., artistsrep.org. 7:30 pm Tuesday-Sunday, through Dec. 17. $50-$60.