Wednesday, March 1, 2017



No one can accuse playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Appropriate, An Octoroon, Gloria, War) of repeating himself. Each play has been unlike its predecessor; the only common denominator (except for War) was their intelligence and theatricality. His latest effort, part of his residency at Signature Theatre, is a deconstruction of the 15th century Middle English morality play Everyman. In that tale, God enlists his assistant Death to lead Everyman to his final reckoning. Death consents to his plea to be allowed to bring someone else along, but no one is willing to make the journey with him. In this version, the lead character has been changed to the gender-neutral Everybody. The play has a gimmick: five actors (Brooke Bloom, Michael Braun, Louis Cancelmi, David Patrick Kelly and Lakisha Michelle May) draw lots to determine who will play Everybody and four other roles at each performance. There are 120 possible combinations. The other four actors (Jocelyn Bioh, Marylouise Burke, Liyana Tiare Cornell and Chris Perfetti) have the same role each time. Burke’s version of Death is so delightful that it hard to remember that one should be frightened. Bioh is also a treat as God and another role that I won’t give away. Friendship, Kinship, Cousinship and Stuff decide not to accompany Everybody, as do late arrivals Strength, Mind, Beauty and Senses. Although Catholicism is briefly mentioned once, religion is surprisingly absent from the play. A character not in the original, Love (Perfetti), turns up late in the play and, puzzlingly, proceeds to put Everybody through a series of humiliations as a price for accompanying him (or her). Only Love and Shitty Evil Things stick around for Everybody’s final journey. The emerging moral seemed muddled. I also think that a lot depends on who is playing Everybody; one reacts differently to the fate of a pregnant woman vs. a white-haired man. In another departure by the playwright, perhaps to break the monotony, there are several blackout scenes during which we hear friends arguing with a dying friend who is telling the play's story as if it were her recurrent dream. I, for one, do not enjoy sitting in the dark listening to disembodied voices. Brief reference someone makes to racial insensitivity seems to have no connection to the play. In another blackout scene we get a marvelous pair of dancing skeletons. The central feature of Laura Jellinek’s set is a row of seats facing the audience identical to ours. Gabriel Berry’s costumes are excellent. The lighting design by Matt Frey enhances the production greatly. Lila Neugebauer (The Wayside Motor Inn, The Wolves) directs with assurance. There is cleverness in abundance, but I was not moved. I suspect that those in the production were having a better time than those in the audience. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission.


P Ardell said...

The playwright’s intention is serious, as Everyman is. Re-imagining it for contemporary audiences is, or can be, an homage to a work important in the history of theater. But I sensed that he condescends to it, too, with winks and nods. While Everyman’s issues are here—the transitory nature not just of life but also of its blessings such as strength, beauty, and pleasure; the alone-ness of our deaths; the importance to live and love fully for the short time we have—"Everybody" made these issues fodder for predictable comic hijinks and gimmicks (e.g., the usher who turns the introductory admonitions to turn off cell phones into stand-up comedy routine and the lottery). I found this play—I’m not sure “play” is the right word—contemporary in predictable ways but neither as funny nor as hip as it wanted to be because it is not nearly as successful in advocating its meaning as the source it’s based on. This isn't the first time I've been to the Irene Diamond Theater at the Signature in which action occurred in the aisles behind me and off to the side out of my range of vision. I got tired of turning in an effort to see and hear what was going on; eventually I no longer bothered.

Bob's Theater Blog said...

Thanks for sharing your incisive comments.