Review by Tulis McCall
February 22, 2017
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 Jacobs-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 the realm of "this-is-a-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.
"Throughout his meteoric career, Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins has made a virtue of his anxieties about identity — social, racial, creative — in meta-theatrical plays that turn traditional forms inside out...Here, though, such self-consciousness curdles, despite some amusing “who’s on first”-style circular dialogue on weighty subjects like the existence of God. And each of Everybody’s individual encounters with the figures of Kinship, Friendship and Stuff (whom he individually begs to accompany him in death) feels oppressively the same."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Lord knows we don’t need a 'faithful' revival of this theatrical fossil (it came a century before Ben Jonson, for pity’s sake), but I’m not sure this slangy, digressive gloss adds much substance. Stranded between cosmic earnestness and a collegiate urge to interrogate weird old texts, Everybody has trouble holding onto a fixed identity."
David Cote for Time Out New York
"This ambitious production proves too self-consciously theatrical to be emotionally involving."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"Something is inevitably lost in adapting the material for a modern audience that has outgrown its fear and awe of hellfire and damnation. But the story retains some power on a human level, and Jacobs-Jenkins plays up the randomness of death and the universality of the human condition by casting most of the major roles in this show by lottery at each performance."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
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