Review ~ “Every Brilliant Thing” at the Barrow Street Theatre

David Roberts / Critic “Social isolation — or lacking social connection — and living alone were found to be even more devastating to a person’s health than feeling lonely, respectively increasing mortality risk by 29% and 32%.” (Brigham Young University Researchers)

Jonny Donahoe has received rave reviews for his performance in Duncan Macmillan’s “Every Brilliant Thing” since the show opened at the Barrow Street Theater back in December(and before in the U.K.) and the show is getting ready to launch its second U.K. tour after its final performance at the Barrow Street Theatre on March 29, 2015. So there would be no good reason to make any changes in the show, right? If something is working, particularly in theatre, best not mess with it. Were I able to simply pile on another rave review - which I easily could - or one that was more a snapshot rather than a review, I would. But I choose not to and will instead try to share my experience at a recent performance and hope that my thoughts will somehow be helpful, maybe even make the protagonist’s list of brilliant things.

About that protagonist and his list of everything brilliant thing worth living for: comedian Jonny Donahoe assumes the role of an unnamed seven year old boy whose Mum is suicidal. In an attempt to cheer her on through her depression, the boy develops a list of things he hopes will be helpful and life affirming. (“1. Ice cream, 2. Water fights, 5. Things with stripes”) Mr. Donahoe distributes items from this list to the audience as they get seated, chats them up about their “reading,” presumably asking them to come in on his cue of shouting out the number associated with each item on the list. During this time, he is also selecting a few audience members to play the roles of characters in his upcoming narrative: a veterinarian (who puts down the boy’s dog Sherlock bones, the boy’s first experience of death); the boy’s father; a teacher (Mrs. Patterson) and her therapeutic sock puppet; a university lecturer; and a university coed named Sam.

“Every Brilliant Thing” at the Barrow Street Theatre (through Sunday March 29, 2015)After distributing the list items and recruiting the audience-actors, Mr. Donahoe begins his narration assuming the role of the boy as he advances through public school, university, and marriage to Sam. The narration is all about how the protagonist attempts to deal with his mother’s depression and suicide attempts – and eventually her suicide by self-asphyxiation. Mr. Donahoe is a good-natured performer, a better comedian than actor, but nonetheless skilled at storytelling and engaging his audience. The narration is punctuated by the sharing of the list items by audience members and the “improve skits” with audience members that illustrate important parts of the protagonist’s story of his attempt to cope with his mother’s depression and his attempt to not fall into depression with suicidal tendencies: not to fall prey to the Werther Effect.

During the performance I attended, a few audience members delivered their “lines” (the list items) on cue and with some enthusiasm; most read what had been given them as they might read any text; and some missed their cue and delivered their “lines” in a lackluster manner. Although this conceit of audience participation is a trope for the importance of the community in battling depression and suicide, it did not significantly add to the performance. The vignettes which included the audience members were more successful, especially those that included the narrator’s father. The audience learned a good deal about the father and this character was the most fully developed of all characters. The piece needs strong characters with identifiable and authentic conflicts in order to drive an interesting and engaging plot. This character development needs more attention in “Every Brilliant Thing.” The audience needs to know more about the boy, his mother, and his love interest Sam in order to connect with them and begin to care about them. Those audience members involved in the performance probably got the most out of the evening and were most likely moved by their participation. The remainder of the audience seemed mere onlookers whose engagement was of a vicarious nature.

Suicide is a messy and important problem. Hearing a story about how one young man dealt with his mother’s depression and suicidal tendencies and his efforts to live without falling into depression himself should be a formidable theatrical event. For this reviewer, the audience participation detracted from the potential power of playwright Duncan Macmillan’s text. The distribution of list items and the recruitment of participants before the play started was overlong and left most of the audience “in the dark.” There is an important message in “Every Brilliant Thing.” Perhaps there is a different way to convey that message than the current incarnation, a play with clearly developed characters whose life problems connect in significant ways to the audience and drive a rich plot. The talented Mr. Donahoe and the creative team might choose to continue with the current format - which obviously would not be a bad thing - or they might try something different for the upcoming tour. It seems the message and the messenger need a fresh start. EVERY BRILLIANT THING

Written by Duncan Macmillan. Performed by Jonny Donahoe and the Audience. Directed by George Perrin. The Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Company production of “Every Brilliant Thing” is presented by Scott Morfee, Jean Doumanian, Tom Wirtshafter, and Patrick Daly. Production photos by Matthew Murphy. “Every Brilliant Thing” plays the following performance schedule: Tuesday-Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets for the production are on sale, on the phone at 212-868-4444, or in person at the Barrow Street Theatre box office (27 Barrow Street at 7th Avenue), open at 1:00 p.m. daily and are priced at $20.00 - $59.00. Student tickets are priced at $20.00 and are available to purchase online in advance. Running time is 65 minutes with no intermission.