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The Humans

The Humans: New York as a Character

Posted on: November 16th, 2015 by Olivia O'Connor

 

The apartment we see in Stephen Karam's play The Humans is unremarkable. Barely moved into and utterly undecorated, with an occasional cockroach, stuttering lightbulbs, and squeaking floors, its best qualities are its single “big window,” ample square footage, and presumably affordable rent. Yet despite its outwardly pedestrian qualities, the apartment tells a highly specific story about New York. The city’s everyday quirks (the incessant noise, the peacefully coexistent vermin, the relentlessly competitive real estate market) and history both recent and past are inextricable from the fabric of the play. With each floor creak and washingmachine rumble, the city asserts itself, a kind of seventh character present at this bizarre Thanksgiving dinner. Below, a character breakdown of New York, as seen in The Humans.

Setting: A turn-of-the-century ground floor/basement duplex tenement apartment in New York City’s Chinatown…The apartment’s pre-war features have been coated in layers of faded off-white paint, rendering the space curiously monotone.

THE HUMANS

THE HUMANS company. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Ground floor/basement duplex spaces like Brigid and Rich’s are legal as long as all bedrooms are on the above ground floor (though a room must have a window to be considered a legal bedroom in NYC; unless Brigid and Rich are planning to sleep in the living room, their landlord is in sketchy territory). Basement-duplex units have been growing in popularity thanks to their relative affordability; cellar space is 30-50% cheaper per square foot than above-ground floors. On the upper end of the real estate market, cellars can be a commodity space, the perfect location for swimming pools, bars and screening rooms.

Brigid and Rich’s lower level represents a contested space in the city’s real estate market. Cellar apartments, aka “Accessory Dwelling Units” (so called if more than 50% of the space is below ground), are illegal in New York, though over 100,000 ADUs are currently occupied across the five boroughs. Historically, these basement spaces have been attractive to new immigrants short on money, but the affordability can come at a price (including poor ventilation, no windows, no emergency exits, and unsanitary conditions). Unfortunately, residents living in unsafe, unregulated
spaces have little recourse, as reporting a safety violation is most likely to result in eviction. Though renovated basement dwellings could offer valuable units to the city’s housing crisis, converting a cellar to a legal apartment is a lengthy and expensive process. In order for more ADUs to be converted to livable spaces, the city will need to decrease red tape and increase tax incentives.

“…my Grandma almost lost her life in a fire ‘cause her bosses locked the doors to her factory to keep ‘em from takin’ breaks, coupla blocks from here…”
—Erik

On March 25, 1911, 145 of the young female workers (most of them immigrants) in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were killed in a fire. Their deaths were largely preventable, but a lack of basic safety features (only one operational elevator, a tiny fire escape, only one unlocked exit door, and no sprinkler system or working hose) created the worst possible conditions for the fire. Many of the workers burned or were asphyxiated inside; others died when they attempted to jump down the elevator shaft or out of the windows to escape the flames.

The factory’s name has stuck as one of the most notorious sweatshops in American history, and the fire had a galvanizing effect on labor reform in the city.

“The whole building groans at times…we have two sets of ear plugs.”
—Richard

The world of The Humans is filled with mysterious and irritating noises: a clomping upstairs neighbor, creakingly thin floors, a rumbling trash compacter, clanking pipes, roiling laundry. Noise
pollution is a major problem in New York. Despite many ordinances to keep noise under control (even ice cream trucks can be fined if their jingles play for more than ten seconds every ten
minutes within a city block), noise is still the number one reason for calls on the city’s 311 line, the hotline for questions and complaints within the five boroughs. Noise complaints have topped the call list every year since 311’s inception in 2003, with more than 3.4 million noise related calls to date.

“…I hate that you’re moving a few blocks from where two towers got blown-up and in a major flood zone…”
—Erik

Set Model for THE HUMANS

Set Model for THE HUMANS

The September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center play a significant role in the history of the Blake family. 2,753 people were killed at the World Trade Center site in the attacks, in which two hijacked passenger jets were steered into the Twin Towers. The planes crashed into the Towers within a twenty-minute period, and in less than two hours, both towers had collapsed, leaving thousands trapped inside. Hundreds of first responders died throughout the rescue efforts; in the years following, thousands more have died or become ill from health-related aftereffects. Two other jetliners were also part of the attacks: one crashed into the Pentagon, and the other, diverted from its target by the passengers onboard, crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. A terrorist group known as al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack, sparking the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Brigid’s apartment lies in a Zone A Flood Zone, meaning that her apartment is in a low-elevation area and would be among the first areas evacuated in the event of a storm. Erik and Deirdre’s unease is directly tied to Hurricane Sandy, the October 2012 storm that ravaged the northeastern seaboard and flooded large sections of lower Manhattan. The storm’s flooding damage wasn’t due to rainfall but to “storm surge,” the abnormal tidal increase caused by a hurricane.

During 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, a 9.41 foot storm surge was compounded by a full-moon high tide, leading to a storm tide over 14 feet at its highest point. Approximately 305,000 New York homes were destroyed by the storm, and the city’s total damage was estimated at $19 billion. As sea levels continue to rise, flooding has become a concern for many coastal residents, including those in lower Manhattan.


The Humans is extended through January 3 at the Laura Pels Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, The Humans


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Drama for the Holidays

Posted on: November 12th, 2015 by Jason Jacobs

 

Relationships with family members can turn holidays into stressful occasions, stirring up memories, fears, regrets, and resentments. No wonder American playwrights have been so inspired by the impact of holiday gatherings! In The Humans, Stephen Karam explores the emotional impact of a Thanksgiving dinner. Here is a selection of other American plays in which families gather with dramatic or comedic results. Psychology Today has advice on avoiding the drama at your own holiday gathering.

 

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Thorton Wilder's THE LONG CHRISTMAS DINNER at Lincoln Center

Thorton Wilder's THE LONG CHRISTMAS DINNER at Lincoln Center

The Long Christmas Dinner (1931)
Thornton Wilder
Wilder theatrically portrays generations of the Bayard family over the span of 90 years through a metaphorical long Christmas dinner. Time passes before the audience’s eyes; characters are born and die, conversations repeat, while industrialization transforms the outside world. The one-act play looks at loss and change but affirms family values and optimism about American progress.

 

The Long Christmas Ride Home (2004)
Paula Vogel
Like Wilder, Vogel also spans several decades. An unnamed family drives to the grandparents’ house for what turns out to be a very unjoyous Noel. In the car, father and mother deal with marital strife while their three children fight. The small children are first represented as puppets; as they grow-up, they are played by adult actors. The passing of time shows the lasting impact of childhood anxieties and family dysfunction.

 

THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES produced by Manhattan Theatre Club

THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES produced by Manhattan Theatre Club

The Assembled Parties (2013)
Richard Greenberg
In a large Upper West Side apartment, the Bascovs are assimilated Jews who celebrate Christmas, first in 1980 and then in 2000. The family centers around two mothers: former teen star Julie and her sister-in-law Faye. We first see the family experiencing the optimism of the Reagan era, but the 20-year gap highlights the impact of loss and disappointment over time.

 

HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY!
Ah, Wilderness! (1933)
Eugene O’Neill
Set in 1906, O’Neill’s only comedy looks at the Miller family on the Fourth of July. Sixteen-year-old son Richard almost loses his first love and confronts feeling like an outsider in his family. A night of drinking and carousing teaches Richard some tough life lessons before the play’s happy ending. The play features an entire lobster meal eaten by the Miller family on stage!

 

The Fifth of July (1978)
Lanford Wilson
Wilson created a trilogy of plays about the Talley family in Missouri. The first two take place on July 4th, 1944. The third play, set in 1977 on the day after the 4th, explores the disillusionment of the post-Vietnam era. Kenneth Talley is a paraplegic war veteran who is ready to sell the family home to wealthy friends, but other Talleys want to keep it in the family.

 

Landford Wilson's THE FIFTH OF JULY at Signature Theatre

Landford Wilson's THE FIFTH OF JULY at Signature Theatre

TODAY’S YOUR BIRTHDAY!
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)
Tennessee Williams
A 65th birthday party for patriarch Big Daddy Pollitt brings the family together on a Mississippi plantation. But attempts at festivity cannot mask the anticipation of Big Daddy’s impending death and the question of who will inherit his estate. The play, which takes place in the course of a single evening, exposes the deception and greed that lurk beneath the surface of a family celebration.

 


The Humans is extended through January 3 at the Laura Pels Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, The Humans


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The Humans: Designer Statements

Posted on: November 4th, 2015 by Roundabout

 

David Zinn - Set Designer

Set Model for THE HUMANS

Set Model for THE HUMANS

In designing The Humans, I’ve tried to capture a couple of things: a space which both accommodates, in a technical way, the complicated and particular geography of Stephen’s story—a maze of rooms and hallways and lights, places to overhear and hide and disappear and surprise. And a space that captures the banal, familiar, and uncanny feeling of a near-empty New York apartment, where it seems just remotely possible that the architecture itself isn’t so happy you’re there. Familiarity and unease, I guess, is what we’ve been after.

Sarah Laux - Costume Designer

If I do my job correctly, the general audience member will not notice the costumes -- that's always the goal I strive for in these contemporary shows. The characters should just seem like they arrived to that destination wearing their "regular clothes" -- whether that's fancy dress or sweatpants. As a result, I tend to take a very organic approach to the piece. I try to spend a lot of time in rehearsal, working directly with the actors to find the key pieces that help make the characters feel as real as possible, whether it's landing on the perfect pair of shoes or a small necklace that has a tangible feeling of embodying a character. I like to think of it as curating the look of the show. Yes, there is an overall design eye at work, but the costume design choices cannot be made in a vacuum -- all the design elements work together to make the finished feeling of the show.

Justin Townsend - Lighting Designer

Darkness has a history in our storytelling of relating to the unconscious; it is the stuff of dreams. Our earliest storytellers must have gathered their audiences around fires, with the darkness closely circling them. The surrounding night allowed strange and perhaps scary tales to materialize from the shadows. In the theatre, we frequently start our productions by “going to black” or darkening the stage to a full blackout. This long-standing tradition must come from a desire to create a place of dreams or imagination in front of us when the lights come back on. We close our eyes, and when we open them, we are transported to another place, into another reality. Stephen Karam’s play has mystery creeping in around the edges. The Humans explores a descent into darkness. What could happen in the surrounding gloom? What will happen? This darkness invites the audience’s imagination to infuse the story with their own personal fears. Without darkness, there cannot be light; the contrast of light against dark allows us to perceive the other. I’m working on crafting a world lit by only a few light sources, starting with a clear and soft optimism that slowly deepens into mystery and fearsomeness. As a single light fights back the darkness, the audience is reminded of their primal fear of the dark.

The company of THE HUMANS

The company of THE HUMANS

Fitz Patton - Sound Designer

The Humans is a very low key play born into a hyperbolic era. America 2015 is an oligarchic, triple espresso, three fingers neat, extreme fighting, caliente landscape of extra salt, extra cheese, turn up the volume “verite.” While we crave naturalism, we demand excess, and the attention span of the average 30-year-old man is now less than that of a 5-year-old child. Into this culture of inversions, of extreme banality, comes The Humans. Suffused with the tediousness of sub-par intergenerational holiday malaise, the play is also haunted, and the combo platter of a plausible but just slightly too complex yet unrewarding living space that is surrounded with just as plausible yet slightly over dense sound sources such as unidentifiable mechanical devices, mysterious thumps, laboring electrics, speechless neighbors, shuffling passersby and in a final, willful act, a door that closes itself, untouched, taking the play to blackness. Much of this mysterious, semi-unprovoked surround sound world has fallen to me, and I stare at it, as of this writing, with a reasonable understanding of the parts, but a somewhat unnerved awareness that they will never quite add up and that that's ok. The play itself suspends the viewer in a web of the curious, the subtle suggestion that leads nowhere but builds an internal emotional logic that unpacks something very real about our country today: our creeping sense that something momentous is growing within us and that we have never been less able to handle substance. Ours is a country swamped in “Social Media,” in communication that covers reality rather than revealing it, in business that yields immobility. And we express this with a sense, a subtle and ceaseless standing wave of anxiety. Rather than tackle this head on, The Humans evokes this pervasive inapprehension, this seemingly sourceless agita, and sound, which taps into our reptile brain, our survival center, which allows us to gather information beyond walls that stop our vision, is the messenger. The role of sound in this play is to subtly undo the certitude of the visual space, to ambiguate it, to offer rootless complexity. By and large, very little of the sound in The Humans is remarked upon. But it is all felt. And its lack of seeming intention is the heart of its relevance.

 


The Humans is extended through January 3 at the Laura Pels Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
Education @ Roundabout, The Humans, Upstage


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