Reviewed by George Basler
To quote an old cliché, nothing is certain except death and taxes, so how will you greet the Grim Reaper when he inevitably shows up at your doorstep and asks for an accounting of your life?
That is the provocative theme of Everybody, a 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, which is being livestreamed this weekend (March 18-21) by the Binghamton University Theatre Department. It is the first of two digital productions that the department is mounting during the spring semester in place of in-person performances.
Under the strong direction of Associate Professor Elizabeth Mozer, the 11-member Binghamton University cast brings energy, spirit and a saucy attitude to the play, which runs 90 minutes without an intermission.
Jacobs-Jenkins is an award-winning playwright and MacArthur Fellow, who is currently on the faculty of the University of Texas’ MFA playwrighting program. His inspiration for Everybody was the 15th century mortality play Everyman, a religious allegory about death and salvation performed during church festivals. Everyman is one of the first recorded plays in the English language.
In Jacobs-Jenkins’ hands, however, a hip, flip and irreverent tone has replaced religious solemnity. For example, the playwright has scrapped references to confession and penance and replaced them with contemporary allusions to social media, consumerism and racial insensitivity.
The play also features the unique element of having the actors draw lots to determine which one will play which secondary role.
The fact that Everybody is being done virtually, rather than in-person, means the actors perform in separate boxes on the computer screen and rely on close-ups to convey their portrayals. Mozer’s direction keeps the action moving to give the production a cinematic feel.
The play, though, is a decidedly mixed bag. Clever and compelling scenes intermingle with ones that are overly didactic and talky.
The extra verbiage is on display in Everybody’s first scene when the Usher, one of the play’s characters, greets audience members with an introduction cautioning them, among other things, to turn off their cellphones and stop crinkling candy wrappers. While initially humorous, the speech becomes wordy and long-winded.
The didactic elements are on full display in blackouts between scenes, when Everybody’s friends gather at his bedside to offer comfort only to have their meeting turn into angry accusations of racism.
Jacobs-Jenkins’ play and the BU production find their groove in the main scenes when Everybody — extremely well-played by sophomore Patrick Saint Ange — seeks a companion to accompany him on the ultimate journey with no return ticket.
A frazzled Everybody approaches Friendship, Kinship, Stuff, Mind, Five Senses and Understanding respectively, only to see them beg off from one reason, or another.
The scenes are darkly humorous and, at times, thought provoking. There are echoes of Thornton Wilder’s great Our Town, in that we do not completely understand or live life to the fullest until it is too late. Obviously, though, Jacobs-Jenkins’ hip, ironic tone is miles away from the pensive, bucolic one of Wilder’s play.
In the end, just Love accompanies Everybody, but only after Everybody learns a lesson in humility. He is commanded to strip, and Saint Ange pulls out all the stops, including stripping down to his underwear.
One of the play’s messages seems to be that everyone dies alone. It’s not exactly uplifting, and Jacobs-Jenkins undercuts it with the cliched message at the conclusion that we all be nice to each other. This coda comes out of nowhere and bangs the audience over the head. It all gets very muddled.
Nonetheless, give credit where credit is due. Jacobs-Jenkins is an extremely inventive playwright with a unique voice. His play and the BU production are weirdly entertaining. Forget any philosophical musings. The production works best as a dark comedy and exercise in pure theatricality.
The cast puts in a strong effort. In the performance I saw, one standout was Ruby McEwen’s giddy, scatterbrained performance as Friendship. She makes the perfect “Valley girl.” Samuel Santos also gave a humorous interpretation of Everybody’s stoned-out cousin.
Another element that needs to be mentioned is a three-minute, pre-recorded dance scene, “La Danse Macabre,” featuring RJ Fox, Derek Kunz and Jessica Mei as dancing skeletons. Choreographed by faculty member Neva Kenny, it is a striking performance and suitably weird, in keeping with the overall tone of the play.
Just relax, and go with the flow, You can appreciate Everybody’s inventive presentation even if it leaves you scratching your head at times.
TO VIEW: Streamed performances at 8 p.m. today and Sunday (March 20 and 21). Buy tickets online or call 777-2787. Online tickets incur fees.