By Kendra Jones

This past weekend I left New York City for my hometown in Pennsylvania, the month my ten-year high school reunion should have been held—when I would see physical faces outside of the baby bumps and marriages and breakups I see on social media feeds. A small town where everyone knows each other, everyone has always known of each other, and everyone that stayed, remained in contact after graduating. But there was no reunion; I doubt there will be interest to gather for a twenty-year reunion, and I doubt I will ever see most of these people outside of social media.

Coincidentally my visit to the cornfields of Pennsylvania occurred the day after attending The Comeuppance. I ran into a classmate—one of the very few who had left the state. From social media, we both knew where we lived, were both vaguely familiar with our career paths. We haven’t spoken since probably senior year. We were once friends.

I found myself reflecting on the friend groups that never deviated—even a decade later—and those adolescent relationships, the girls crying at lunch and prom over boys, the toxic masculinity of the football players whose sport defined them and offered them the power to intimidate their peers. I couldn’t help comparing myself to Emilio (Caleb Eberhardt): now an outsider to this small-town world, having escaped his constants and everything he’s known, to pursue his art in Germany.

The Comeuppance, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, is a play about those friends from which you can be apart for decades but come together again with the same comradery you had years before. It shows parts of ourselves we disclose and the shame we hide, the individuals we are vs. the characters we want others to see. It’s a performance of avoiding Death, until it’s brimming and overwhelmingly real. The empathy we grew and fostered during COVID relapses—were we the best versions of ourselves during the most difficult times? We revert to this dark ritual that was activated when each of us first ached. “The Age of Bad Choices Seeking Their Consequences. The Comeuppance…”

A reunion: being brought together again as a unified whole. 

It’s fall 2022 in Maryland and five adults are gathered at Ursula’s (Brittany Bradford) house to pregame for their 20th high school reunion. The friends had planned a ride in a party limo to the reunion to feel that recognition one experienced when pulling up to prom in style, but I realize that they won’t be piling into that limo together, they won’t arrive to the reunion unified, and I’m left wondering if they all will ever be together again.

Each classmate takes turns encountering and encompassing Death throughout the span of 130 minutes; in those few minutes the stage action pauses, their voices become hollowed and Death fills them in some of their most vulnerable moments. The audience learns about each character’s relationship to death through these flashes, as the characters themselves do not want to expose their fears, anxieties, sufferings.

Emilio a fashion-forward artist and Berlin implant, seems to be the farthest from death, but Death is first introduced through him.

We see these five classmates pregaming at Ursula’s house. The friends had planned a ride in a party limo to the reunion to feel that recognition one experienced when pulling up to prom in style, but I realize that they won’t be piling into that limo together, they won’t arrive to the reunion unified, and I’m left wondering if they all will ever be together again.

Each of the characters are struggling with their personal lives, but they all conceal their problems until alcohol and drugs take hold. Emilio has an attractive partner and a newborn and lives in Germany developing his art; it’s almost a reach that he has returned for a reunion. Ursula has diabetes and is blind in one eye, making social and career options lonely and challenging. Caitlin (Susannah Flood) is married to a much older man, often referenced as seemingly a father to the gang. Kristina (Shannon Tyo) wants a divorce, is annoyed that her husband plays videogames all day, and she just has too many kids.

The fifth adult, Paco (Bobby Moreno), is invited to the festivities by Kristina, despite him not being in either their graduating class or their friend group, M.E.R.G.E. We learn Paco’s relationship with Caitlin in high school was cyclical, alluding to abuse, spanned several abortions, and led to lingering longings. We watch Emilio’s anger and annoyance with Paco’s presence burst.

But they all find themselves on Ursula’s porch.

We learn the least about Ursula—she’s the host; the majority of Emilio’s criticisms are spent on the others, as Ursula plays mixologist, pitchers of watermelon muddled adult jungle juices.

Emilio continuously criticizes the others, but maybe they all are passively judging each other, and they all play it off with inside jokes and gestures they used in high school. I’m surprised how quickly the tension disappears with each offense, but they become increasingly insulting and blunt with each other. Emilio gets annoyed that everyone thought he was gay in high school. Kristina comes in her service uniform from when she served, because she could get recognition at the reunion. This is her ONE night out. She wants to have fun. She may have a drinking problem.

And Paco may have PTSD. He has a run-in with death on Ursula’s porch, but we understand that death is merely an observant bystander to the honesty and cruelty that unfolds on Ursula’s porch, for now.

And Caitlin and Paco may have gone home together after the reunion.

We learn that Emilio’s on the east coast for his art installation in New York.  He really doesn’t have a partner; his baby’s mother is actually just a friend that simply wanted to have a child. He doesn’t know the extent he will be in his daughter’s life. Emilio’s life is just as problematic as everyone else’s, and perhaps Ursula is the one whose is coming the most together: she has a girlfriend who helps care for her, a house, and she seems to be gaining sense of control.

And I’m left waiting for something to happen to Emilio—isn’t he the one that deserves it, the one least familiar with death? Death reveals he will, in fact, return six months from now.

But yet, Death will take more from Ursula and it will be unbearable.

We learn Emilio’s installation allows experiencers to hear pitch frequencies under water—the older the listener, the less they’ll be able to hear as frequencies escalate, and hearing is lost with age.

It’s late, after the reunion, after a brutal storm has passed through; Emilio sits with Ursula on her porch. He plays the frequencies from his installation for her, and, somehow, she thinks she can hear those frequencies she wouldn’t have been able to hear since high school. Is she avoiding the inevitable, still? Or, is she so close to death once again and able to hear those frequencies that fall outside of the human range?

This play is an experience and reminder of those years upon years you spent around the same people, and you leave—finally, phew—wanting to return different, break from the mold, feel like you’ve done something extraordinary. It’s the reminder to pay attention to those life-shifting moments, like abusive relationships and falling in and falling out of love and trauma and seeing physical death and feeling grief or carrying joy and living through pandemics and lock downs, and how we interact with humans, and ultimately choosing how each confrontation with death will shape you. Perhaps it really is only during those moments with death that we become our most likeable selves…

I imagine the characters coming together again, 6 months later, after a friend’s death. I imagine they will be forced to recognize each other; this time, their honesty won’t be unearthed after drinking and smoking. Maybe they’ll accept the inevitable, acknowledge their brokenness, and they’ll finally be a unified whole.

Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; Directed by Eric Ting.

WITH: Brittany Bradford (Ursula), Caleb Eberhardt (Emilio), Susannah Flood (Caitlin), Bobby Moreno (Francisco “Paco”), Shannon Tyo (Kristina).

Creative Team: Arnulfo Maldonado (Scenic Designer), Jennifer Moeller (Costume Designer), Miriam Kelleher (Costume Designer), Amith Chandrashaker (Lighting Design), Palmer Hefferan (Sound Design), Skylar Fox (Magic Designer), Ann C. James (Intimacy Coordinator), Matt Carlin (Props Supervisor), Amanda Nita Luke-Sayed (Production Stage Manager), Elizabeth Emanuel (Assistant Stage Manager), Kat Yen (Associate Director).

The World Premiere Production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ The Comeuppance will run until June 25, 2023 at Signature Theatre, 480 w. 42nd Street, Manhattan in the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre.