An awful lot of plays lose their essence on the way to the screen. Not Stephen Karam’s “The Humans.’’
Many film directors leap at the chance to “open up” a work that originated in the theater. But first-time director Karam, helming his own adaptation of his 2016 drama for Showtime, has crafted a version of “The Humans” even more tightly enclosed than it was on the stage — and even better, which is saying something.
At the center of “The Humans” — a title as simple and all-encompassing as “Our Town’' — is the Blake family. As they gather for Thanksgiving dinner in a nondescript apartment in lower Manhattan, the atmosphere is fraught.
Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) have traveled from Pennsylvania, with Erik’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, “Momo’' (June Squibb), to celebrate the holiday with their daughters Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Aimee (Amy Schumer), and Brigid’s boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun).
The tenderness with which the Blakes treat Momo, and their banter with one another as they tell inside jokes or exchange tidbits about friends from back in Pennsylvania, underscores the fundamentally loving nature of the clan. This is not an “August: Osage County”-style bloodletting.
But before dinner is over there will be friction and wounding remarks and secrets that push their way to the surface. Each member of the family is under pressure in one way or another — financial, medical, marital, emotional, occupational, psychological — and the holiday table threatens to buckle under the collective weight of those pressures.
Less tangibly but inescapably, the aftershocks of 9/11 ripple through “The Humans.’’ The apartment is located near the location of the Twin Towers, and Erik is haunted by a near-miss from that terrible day. He keeps fretting about the fact that Brigid and Steven’s apartment is in the middle of a flood zone; he keeps offering to caulk this or fix that. Erik has been having trouble sleeping due to a recurring nightmare about a strangely disfigured woman. When Erik is awake, he’s haunted by loss, or, rather, the prospect of loss.
Flickering around the movie’s edges are the economic disruptions of the Great Recession, which did so much to damage the psyche of the middle class. A sense hovers over the Blakes that nothing is fixed or stable, a feeling not unfamiliar to any of us after a year and a half of pandemic.
Karam has a great ear for dialogue, a quality also on display in his “Sons of the Prophet,’’ which premiered at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company a decade ago, and “Speech & Debate,’’ presented in 2017 at Pittsfield’s Barrington Stage Company. As someone who saw and greatly admired “The Humans’' during its Tony Award-winning run on Broadway and again, three years ago, at the Shubert, I found it fascinating to see how Karam went under the hood and found ways to tighten and intensify the play while deepening its interiority.
Karam uses lingering closeups, off-kilter camera angles, and half-heard conversations from other rooms to heighten the film’s aura of free-floating dread. (”The Humans’' might have earned approving grunts from directors as different as Ingmar Bergman and Robert Altman.) The point of view in a scene is often not what you might expect. For instance, when Erik finally makes a painful confession to his daughters, we hear but do not see him, while Aimee and Brigid are glimpsed only from side and rear angles.
Karam plays, too, with horror-movie tropes. Rooms are steeped in shadow. There are mysterious thumps on the ceiling, and a stain, also mysterious. A portion of one wall seems to be either bubbling or melting (it made me think of the ghostly face of Jacob Marley on Scrooge’s door). Harsh, jolting sounds such as the clatter of a kicked-over can come out of nowhere. Coffee vibrates in Erik’s cup like a sinister whirlpool.
Trancelike, Erik stares at the wall and the stain and the coffee. Deep into middle age, he’s a lost and defeated man. In other words, it’s the kind of role Jenkins can knock out of the park, and he does, delivering a quietly riveting performance that ranks among the finest of this distinguished actor’s career.
Houdyshell, reprising her role from the Broadway production (she was recently seen in a very different vein in Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building’'), demonstrates how thoroughly she knows Deirdre, from the inside out. A longtime office manager, Deirdre is working for bosses who are much younger and better-paid than she is, but something deeper seems to be tugging at her. The hurts and sorrows Deirdre carries are evident on her face, but only when she is alone. Wounded pride is still pride.
While Brigid is the most upbeat Blake, she’s stymied in her songwriting career, which generates alternating currents of buoyancy and snappishness in her that are skillfully conveyed by Feldstein. As the poignantly there-but-not-there Momo and supportive-but-no-pushover Richard, Squibb and Yeun are first-rate.
And Schumer, seemingly the wild card here? Her outsize persona is nowhere in evidence as Aimee, a lawyer who has lost both her job and her girlfriend in quick succession, and is now facing surgery for a chronic condition, Anyone who doubted Schumer’s dramatic chops might be surprised at her commitment to grounding her portrayal in the specifics of character.
The world is a punishing place for the Blakes, for anybody. Karam’s compassion for them — for us — is married to his gift for capturing the human dilemma even in seemingly throwaway lines. At one point, Erik says to Richard: “Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?’’ High prices are the ostensible topic, but Jenkins’s bleak expression and tone of voice make it clear that, for Erik, there’s more than one way to measure the cost of living.
Written and directed by Stephen Karam; based on his play. Starring Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein, Steven Yeun, June Squibb. On Showtime. 108 minutes. R (sexual material, language)