By Tulis McCall
With Everybody, now in production at Signature Theatre, Brendan Jacobs-Jenkins has created another circuitous and intriguing route for us to follow. Like his previous plays, Octoroon, Appropriate and Gloria Jacobs-Jenkins takes no prisoners. You either keep up with the pace or you fall off the wagon train. One gets the feeling that Jacob-Jennings doesn’t care either way because his eye is locked onto the trail ahead.
In Everybody, Jacobs-Jennings uses the play Everyman as his base and pulls it, kicking and screaming, into a contemporary setting. We begin with the requisite character God (Jocelyn Bioh) who enters and settles us all down with a gentle touch and a healthy dose of philosophy. There is much to think about in this Universe, so let’s get down to it. She is soon joined by the endearing Mary Louise Burke – who may be the only person who could swear up a storm and still be considered cuddly. In this play, Burke is Death, and she is charged by God with assembling a few humans to make the mighty journey into realm of “this-is-place-from-which-you-do-not return”. Luckily for Burke, her chosen few are right nearby.
The rules are explained, that each human must return at the appointed time with a sort of journal to present to God as explanation and justification for their earthly time. Even better would be to return with a person who was a witness. Next comes a chancy little sleight-of-hand where the decision of who will play which character is decided. Out of the possible 120 variations, one combination will emerge, and we are asked to believe that this is random. I bought it. And there was just enough tension among the performers to make it believable in a great way.
Once the parts have been assigned we are off to the races, with the Everybody character relating and discussing dreams with the other cast members in a blackout that eventually fades up to reveal the various people that Everybody is seeking to be partner(s) in the journey. Each is named with an overarching connection: Friendship, Kinship, Cousinship etc. And one by one they ditch Everybody with the same lame excuses that translate into – “You are on your own buck-o”. This ensemble is consistent and tight, and soon we forget about who is whom and simply follow the tale.
The tale itself turns out to be unremarkable, which is disappointing. There comes a point in the narrative where the entire journey collapses under its own weight. Things don’t turn out very well for Everybody, because death is in charge. There are two elements/characters who do choose to make the journey with him, but the final elements of Strength, Beauty, Mind, and the Senses all – as they do with us mortals – abandon the person who is sliding into death. Once the inevitable has occurred, God returns with some final, unnecessary words to live by – or at least to think on.
Unlike The Octoroon this play stops just short of the absurd, which results in the play’s trajectory listing to one side and then to another. The journey of Everybody is clear, but it is interrupted by the whispers in the dark, the appearance and disappearance of the odd character, and of course the character raffle that begins the tale. These elements feel unnecessary and border on being gimmicks. They clutter our field of vision/concentration/spiritual connection. They only serve to make the piece too clever by half and thus dilute the proceedings.
EVERYBODY by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, Directed by Lila Neugebauer
WITH: Jocelyn Bioh, Brooke Bloom, Michael Braun, Marylouise Burke, Louis Cancelmi, Lilyana Tiare Cornell, David Patrick Kelly, Lakisha Michelle May, and Chris Perfetti.
Sets by Laura Jellinek; Costumes by Gabriel Berry; Lighting by Matt Frey; Sound and Original Music by Brandon Wolcott
The production will now run through March 19, 2017, in The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues). Tickets during the extension performances begin at $40.
To purchase tickets for all Signature productions, call Ticket Services at 212-244-7529 (Tues. – Sun., 11am – 6pm) or visit www.SignatureTheatre.org.