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The one thing you know for sure about a Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play is that it will be different from his previous entries. That is certainly the case with his modern riff on the 15th-century morality play Everyman, which showcases the author of such acclaimed works as An Octoroon, Gloria, Neighbors and Appropriate in typically audacious, experimental form. Unfortunately, some experiments work out better than others. Despite clever moments, Everybody, receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway’s Signature Theater, proves a trial to sit through.
The evening begins with a typical pre-theater lecture about cell phones, unwrapping candy, etc. delivered by a good-natured female usher (Jocelyn Bioh). You’d be well advised to heed her instructions, because not long afterwards she reveals herself to be God.
The play concerns the titular character, renamed to be non-gender-specific, who is informed by Death that his or her time is up. I say “his or her” because one of the play’s conceits is that much of the casting is determined by lottery at the beginning of the performance. So you won’t know in advance which performers will be playing the different roles, only that there are 120 possible variations.
Death, however, is always played by veteran character actress Marylouise Burke, and the Grim Reaper has never seemed more adorable. Not that this provides much comfort to Everybody (David Patrick Kelly at the reviewed performance), who’s desperate to find someone to accompany him to the great beyond and help him in his presentation to God.
Among those entities he implores are Friendship, Kinship, Cousinship and Stuff. He would particularly like Stuff to keep him company on his journey, telling him, “You’ve given me so much comfort over the years.” Stuff professes to be flattered, but points out that there’s simply too much of him, and he would only slow Everybody down.
Late in the play, a disgruntled member begins to walk out of the auditorium, telling Everybody, “For the record, I’m finding all this pretty offensive.” He turns out to be Love (Chris Perfetti), who makes Everybody jump through hoops before deciding whether he’ll honor his request.
For all its artistic ambitions, Everybody turns out to be confusing and disjointed, filled with stylistic diversions that more often than not prove underwhelming. At one point a pair of life-sized skeletons performs a macabre dance, and though the visual is creepy at first, its impact is lessened when it seems to go on forever.
The revolving casting feels like a gimmick and has some unfortunate results: Much of the narration is delivered via pre-recorded voiceover featuring the different castmembers, and because many of them have had to learn multiple roles they sometimes have trouble with their lines. While such reliable performers as Kelly, Burke and Louis Cancelmi are excellent, the rest of the ensemble is uneven at best.
Director Lila Neugebauer — who has garnered raves for several productions at the Signature as well as for the recent off-Broadway hit The Wolves — does her best to involve the audience, often positioning the actors in different sections of the auditorium. The odds are decent that a person sitting near you will turn out to be a character in the play.
Ultimately, Everybody fails in its goal to make its themes universal and its centuries-old inspiration feel contemporary. In the end, its overemphasis on self-conscious theatrical flourishes proves more distancing than immersive.
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Jocelyn Bioh, Brooke Bloom, Michael Braun, Marylouise Burke, Louis Cancelmi, Lilyana Tiare Cornell, David Patrick Kelly, Lakisha Michelle May, Chris Perfetti
Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Director: Lila Neugebauer
Set designer: Laura Jellinek
Costume designer: Gabriel Berry
Lighting designer: Matt Frey
Music and sound designer: Brandon Wolcott
Choreographer: Raja Feather Kelly
Presented by Signature Theatre
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