Theater Review: “Every Brilliant Thing” — Scrambles the Genres, Beautifully

Every Brilliant thing is evidence, which we may need, that life matters, and that theatre matters.

Photo: O + M Company

Jonny Donahoe in “Every Brilliant Thing” at the Barrow Street Theatre. Photo: O + M Company

By Joann Green Breuer

As a superannuated theatre worker and teacher, I have delighted in disparaging three performance genres for many years, often alliterationally. Of course, these are generalizations, but they are too often true.

Here they are:

After all, Western playwrighting began when Aeschylus placed the third person on the boards, making being off balance the sine qua non of dramatic development.

2.) AUTOBIOGRAPHY, with often the sub-category of biography.
An opportunity for self –indulgence, and expectation of praise for the subject’s pride in having survived (abuse? illness? society?): justification, redemption, and a pat on the back.

Suddenly everyone misthinks he is an actor. It can make me grateful to Equity.

Who would imagine a hat trick at New York’s Barrow Street Theatre (through March 29, 2015), but: Every Brilliant Thing is.

There is little one would call a stage, just a small square surrounded by five seating areas, two raked and one raised and raked, with barely ample aisles and a short set of steps. Everyone is facing someone, no way of knowing if anyone is coming or going. Maybe preshow, or, more likely, signaling that the show has begun, the Performer/co-writer, Jonny Donahoe, a bit pudgy, but lightfooted, scampers through the aisles. He pauses to hand slips of paper and say a few instructions to selected members of the audience. His friendliness, and gentle firmness, does not give a hint of his casing us, which he must have been doing, slyly, sweetly, all along.

On each piece of paper is a number, mine was 45, and a word or phrase, mine was ‘hugging.’ I got it. Obvious: every brilliant thing listed. The situation begins with a child, the Performer, attempting to keep his mother from attempting suicide, again. Reminders of wonderful things of this world on post-it notes stuck up around the house should do the trick. Or not… It is a charming and innocent ploy, and might have been sufficient to create a charming and innocent play.

But there is so much more in this theatre piece: more than numbered lists and quirkily particular observations. Here is a marvelous multi-gifted actor, living from age seven to what passes as maturity, and telling us about it simultaneously at each stage, pun intended. Music suffuses the atmosphere, and provides a major and moving, pun intended (again), surprise. We, like the Performer, are inside and outside the character at once. Yes, we members of the audience have our parts to read, and despite the Performer’s instant insightful castings, someone is bound to mess up. The Performer is a kind and helpful coach. He is deft with improvisation, and delightfully appreciative of audience partnership, no matter how awkward. We are on stage and off stage with him at once. To grasp the desperate last straw of conventional cliché: we do not know if we are laughing or crying because most of the time we are.

Is this a one-hander? Or is it theater with a cast of however many are in the audience, plus one, the professional actor, who does not seem to be acting? He clearly loves whatever he is doing, bearing the pain of memory, as do we, rooting as much for our audience community as for his singular sensitive, humble heroism. He seems so sensible, this colossus of a lad, while sweetly straddling the unbearable (auto-biographical?) tragic fact we know will happen, has happened, despite his every brilliant thing. Along the way he enlists us with his lists. We want to help him. I hope we do. At least we try. Resistance is inconceivable, inhumane.

Jonny Donahoe, his director, George Perrin, and their playwright, Duncan Macmillan, have cooked my life-long opinionated words into a memorable, meaningful meal. Every Brilliant Thing is evidence, which we may need, that life matters, and that theatre matters.

Note: Every Brilliant Thing originated in London, produced by Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Company. Jonny Donohoe is a British comedian/musician, front man of Johnny and the Baptists, and has written and performed for many stages, Radio 4, and BBC TV. George Perrin is joint Artistic director of Paines Plough, a theatre company devoted to new plays.

Joann Green Breuer is artistic associate of the Vineyard Playhouse.

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