If Stephen Karam's Tony Award-winning play The Humans had a subtitle, it might be A Horror Story.
The monstrous clanking, hammering, and whooshing sounds emanating from the environs of a newly rented duplex tenement apartment in Manhattan's gentrifying Chinatown turn out to have mostly human origins.
But they are metaphorically linked to the dream and pop-cult monsters in Karam's artful dark comedy — and to the verbal assaults that members of his spirited Irish-American Blake family launch during a Thanksgiving reunion.
The Walnut Street Theatre's production, on through March 4 and directed by the theater's producing artistic director, Bernard Havard, has moments of tenderness and humor. But it lacks the precision and outsize performances that made the Broadway production so entertaining. It moves at times too quickly, with lots of incomprehensible cross-talk, and an unusually noisy opening night audience – filled with ringing cellphones, crackling candy wrappers, and persistent talkers – made the dialogue even harder to understand.
On Broadway, Jayne Houdyshell picked up a Best Featured Actress Tony for her vivid portrayal of 61-year-old Deirdre Blake, whose prodigious eating, relentless proselytizing about religion and marriage, and emotional invasiveness are proxies for dealing with her own frustrations. (She's both an unpaid caregiver for her demented, wheelchair-bound mother-in-law and an underpaid office manager.) Philadelphia favorite Mary Martello's performance is tart and on point, but less funny and striking.
Another revered local actor, Greg Wood, finds the pain and errant humanity in husband and father Erik Blake. But he is no match for the memory of Reed Birney, who also won a Tony.
The dominant performer in the Walnut Street ensemble is Jennie Eisenhower, who plays daughter Aimee Blake. A lesbian lawyer in Philadelphia, she has just lost her longtime romantic partner and her chance at a legal partnership – possibly because of a debilitating illness.
Placing a nostalgic holiday call to her ex, Eisenhower makes Aimee's grief palpable, her subsequent rejection almost too much to bear. Havard frames her in a memorable tableau, in which other family members inhabit their own pockets of isolation. Among them is the disabled grandmother, Fiona "Momo" Blake (Sharon Alexander), as well as the dinner's hosts: Aimee's sister Brigid (Alex Keiper), a bartending composer; and her beau, Richard Saad (Ibrahim Miari).
Karam is less interested in plot than in thematic polarities: the tensions between isolation and community, darkness and light, tragedy and comedy, rampant dysfunction and abiding love. Thanks to Roman Tatarowicz's realistic tenement set, Shon Causer's abruptly diminishing lighting, and Christopher Colucci's spooky sound design, this production gets the visuals and the sonic ambience right.
The Humans may double as a Rorschach test, with audience reactions reflecting individual experiences of class and family. The play is set in a New York still reeling from the ravages of 9/11, which family members barely escaped. And it evokes a working-class world – the Blakes hail from Scranton, Karam's hometown – where life is hardscrabble, paycheck to paycheck, and the loss of a job constitutes a catastrophe akin to the falling towers.
But this fine play is anchored in existential angst at least as much as in anxious recent history. In Karam's view, we are all monsters, all too human, trying to find temporary solace in an unforgiving universe.