'The Comeuppance' review — old friends, and death, reunite
Read our four-star review of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's The Comeuppance off Broadway, now playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center through June 25.
A specter of Death looms over The Comeuppance, the much-anticipated new play from Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at Signature Theatre, but the candidates all feel too obvious to be chosen. Will the depressed artist die, or the diabetic whose symptoms are rapidly increasing? How about the unstable, PTSD-laden veteran, or the anesthesiologist with an alcohol problem? The show is a puzzle begging you to solve it and clocking your distraction as you try.
Death, who inhabits the characters at various points, becomes a reprieve from the awkward tension of missed connections and the escalation of conflict as Emilio (Caleb Eberhardt) tears everyone down, determined to destroy what remains of his relationships.
Emilio is smart and apparently a great artist, but he is also insufferable, spouting off societal observations like he’s the first to ever voice them. He is sometimes oblivious to his patronizing tone, though sometimes seems aware of how much he hurts his old friends, goading them until they snap. He directs much of his ire at Caitlin (Susannah Flood), his former best friend and confidante whom he now resents for marrying a “shithead” instead of him.
Though the friends gather together for their 20th high school reunion, they remain alone. Caitlin has lost her husband to online conspiracy theories, Emilio harbors a secret about his own relationship, Ursula’s (Brittany Bradford) social life shrank since she lost vision in one eye, and Kristina (Shannon Tyo) shunned her husband and turned to alcohol to cope with the trauma of intubating Covid patients.
The only one who insists he’s fine is Paco (Bobby Moreno), a veteran and Caitlin’s high school boyfriend who shows up at the pre-reunion gathering unannounced. (“But he wasn’t in our class,” Emilio protests when Kristina drags Paco, who is also her cousin, to the nostalgia-laden party on Ursula’s porch.) Though 20 years have gone by, Emilio remains obsessed with his friend group’s identity as MERGE, the Multi-Ethnic Reject Group Experience, a moniker he’s apparently clung to while his friends have grown up and moved on (though most have remained in their hometown).
Jacobs-Jenkins’s characters employ an ironic device when one believes another is “harshing the buzz” or “rambling”: They pretend to kill each other, snapping their necks and stabbing one another when someone’s joke gets old or they’re too stoned to know how long they’ve been talking. No one took this approach to Jacobs-Jenkins’s script, though director Eric Ting cut at least 10 minutes of runtime before press performances. Though its dialogue is sharp and its characters memorable, The Comeuppance tries to hold down too many conversations at once, stretching an arm into every pot.
Not every thread ties up in the end; Emilio’s fixation on the Columbine shooting comes through in both his hatred of the military and his violent outbursts, but a tale of his desire to photograph reactions to the September 11 attacks falls flat. In the story, told via phone by Simon, a friend who couldn’t make the reunion, Emilio seizes on the news of 9/11 as an opportunity to document the reactions of his classmates, hoping he can win a Pulitzer Prize. He regrets the incident now.
So why include it? Emilio laments that he abandoned photography because he “got tired of realism,” but Jacobs-Jenkins has Simon list current events in a monologue: Trump, Covid, Roe v. Wade, phenomena both the characters and audience already understand. Is Emilio trying to distance himself from such obviousness in his own art, or is he embracing it? The Comeuppance is in some ways a beautiful meditation on millennial angst and in other ways an unfinished and wavering examination of it. At least it presents its questions in a visually interesting, genre-bending manner, with a reminder that Death becomes all of us.
Photo credit: Bobby Moreno, Shannon Tyo, Susannah Flood, Brittany Bradford, and Caleb Eberhardt (clockwise) in The Comeuppance. (Photo by Monique Carboni)
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