by Brian Scott Lipton
Is there anything to really be learned from a 15th century Dutch morality play, possibly adapted from a Buddhist fable, and updated to the present-day by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, one of the 21st century’s most provocative and acclaimed playwrights? Well, as our friendly “usher” (the hilarious Jocelyn Bioh) reminds us towards the end of Everybody, perhaps we can.
“Maybe let’s just all be a little better about recycling. Also start really listening to each other, maybe being less judgmental and forgiving but, also, owning up to our mistakes and being open to change our minds. Lead with Understanding. You know: just being nice to each other.”
Isn’t that something to think about in these vitriolic, politically-charged times? (And recycling is always important. Always.)
If you’re now thinking Everybody is some sort of stern lecture, think again. It’s a meditation on life and death (embodied here by the spectacular Marylouise Burke) to be sure, but for much of its 95 minutes, it’s also a pretty raucous comedy that can remind us just how foolish, selfish, and childish people can be. And people are indeed “everybody”—here played by one of five actors (Brooke Bloom, Michael Braun, Louis Cancelmi, David Patrick Kelly, and Lakisa Michelle May) who rotate (by lottery) in this title role—as well as numerous others each night. (I feel fortunate to have seen Bloom, who managed to be simultaneously unsympathetic and sympathetic, yet undeniably heartbreaking.)
Part of Jenkins’ gimmick, executed superbly by director Lila Neuburger, are that these five performers are seated with us in the audience, and then suddenly called on stage to participate in the proceedings by the “Usher” once the play gets into motion. Everybody has been summoned by God (Bioh) to make an accounting of his or her life, and it is Death’s job to make sure the chosen one is delivered.
Unsurprisingly, Everybody soon realizes this is a mighty tricky task, and one he/she hasn’t thought about much while going along doing daily routines (especially social media, which Jacobs-Jenkins really appears to object to). So she asks if she can bring a companion to the other side, and implores Friendship, Kinship, and Cousinship to come along. Of course, they all find reasons to turn Everybody down, as do other traits you thought you might be able to rely along. One unexpected—and pitifully unnoticed guest—proves to be Everybody’s truly constant companion, a twist that could provide hope even for the hopeless.
As much as I enjoyed most of the play, it can feel long even at 95 minutes (I confess to looking at my watch more than once) and the last scene before the Usher’s final speech, which includes the sudden appearance of a couple of new characters, seems a bit bloated. But there’s no denying that Jacobs-Jenkins isn’t just anybody; he’s a playwright with a unique voice that begs listening.
Everybody. Through March 19 at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). www.signaturetheatre.org or call (212) 244-7529 for tickets.
Photos: Monique Carboni