A loud “Whomp!’’ is the first thing we hear in “The Humans,’’ and that unsettling thud is far from the last mysterious noise that resounds within the Shubert Theatre before the end of Stephen Karam’s piercing and insightful drama.
But what may haunt you the most is the quiet desperation in the voices and faces of the Blakes, a middle-class family struggling for purchase as once-solid ground shifts beneath their feet and a once-familiar world becomes unrecognizable.
Evoking dread can be a tricky business for a playwright; the temptations of melodramatic overstatement are ever-present. Yet Karam keeps his play deceptively simple. As its title suggests, “The Humans’’ is grounded in the kind of everyday anxieties many of us share: about money, health, relationships, careers, and, hovering above it all, our fears for the fragile safety of loved ones in a precarious world.
Yet Karam also anchors “The Humans’’ in the specifics of event and character. The Blakes are a loving clan, and both the playwright and director Joe Mantello regard them with compassion. We are not in Albee country or in the realm of Tracy Letts’s “August: Osage County,’’ where to be in a family is to enter a pact of mutually assured destruction. Mantello’s superb cast — headed by a never-better Richard Thomas and Pamela Reed as parents Erik and Deirdre, both around 60 — creates a natural-seeming rapport onstage at the Shubert. They make us believe that the Blakes have a history together that matters deeply to them, and “The Humans’’ is leavened with humor built on that history and on their affectionate teasing of one another.
But there is friction, too, and a pervasive sense of stress and unease churning beneath the surface as the Blakes gather for Thanksgiving dinner. Erik and Deirdre have traveled from Scranton, Pa., to the ground floor/basement apartment in New York City’s Chinatown that 26-year-old daughter Brigid (Daisy Eagan) has just moved into with her boyfriend, Richard (Luis Vega). Also on hand is 34-year-old daughter Aimee (Therese Plaehn).
For individual reasons large and small, the Blakes are plagued by worry about diminished prospects and a larger sense that it’s all slipping away from them. The human embodiment of that generalized sensation is “Momo’’ (Lauren Klein), Erik’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, on whom the family touchingly dotes as she utters sounds that are unintelligible yet sometimes reflect the mood in the room.
Aimee is an attorney whose standing at her law firm has just eroded in dramatic fashion, whose heart has just been broken by the end of a longtime relationship with her girlfriend, and who is facing surgery for a longstanding medical condition. Brigid, an aspiring composer, is working two bartending jobs and is struggling to win even an unpaid internship while devastated by a half-hearted letter of recommendation from a professor. Deirdre is an office manager whose bosses are four decades younger than her and make five times her salary.
And what of Erik, who has worked for nearly three decades at a Catholic school, first as the head of maintenance, then as equipment manager? He seems distracted, lost in private thought, as he pokes about the apartment, frets about the noises from upstairs and spotty cellphone coverage, and complains about the price of things. “Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?’’ he asks, in one of the play’s most plangent lines.
Erik has been troubled by spooky dreams lately. On this occasion he has something to tell his daughters, and he is trying to work up the nerve to do so.
“The Humans’’ won the 2016 Tony Award for best play and was also a Pulitzer finalist, as was Karam’s “Sons of the Prophet,’’ which received its world premiere at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company in 2011 before moving to off-Broadway, in slightly revised form. A Brown University graduate who first gained wide attention with 2007’s “Speech & Debate,’’ Karam consistently brings heart and insight to his plays, bolstered by his gift for crafting small moments and connections that ring utterly true.
So daughters Brigid and Aimee worry in “The Humans’’ about mom Deirdre’s arthritis and dad Erik’s back, and the parents worry about Aimee’s broken heart. The daughters tease Deirdre over her habit of sending spirituality-inflected e-mails, while, for her part, Deirdre nudges Brigid and Richard over the fact that they are not married. Both parents fret about the fact that Brigid and Aimee don’t go to church. “You put faith in your juice cleanse or yoga but you won’t try church,’’ Erik laments.
It’s clear throughout “The Humans’’ that one thing the Blakes won’t lose faith in is one another, but neither does the play glibly suggest that that will be enough to get them through the challenges they face. Karam’s achievement in constructing this portrait of a family that is barely holding on is to show us not just the way we live now but the way we feel now.
Play by Stephen Karam. Directed by Joe Mantello. Presented by the Boch Center. At Shubert Theatre, Boston, through March 25. Tickets $25-$89, 866-348-9738, www.bochcenter.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.