“Every Brilliant Thing,” a funny, fun and moving show about a boy who begins writing a list of “everything worth living for” to cheer up his suicidal mother, comes from Great Britain, where “brilliant” is used the way Americans say cool or awesome. As it turns out, though, “Every Brilliant Thing” is brilliant in the American sense too.
This is largely thanks to Jonny Donahoe, who portrays the central character, the unnamed narrator, in Duncan MacMillan’s hour-long play, which has now opened at the Barrow Street Theater, where it is scheduled to run through March 29, 2015. I say the central character, even though he is the only paid actor in the show, because the cast includes just about every member of the audience.
Before “Every Brilliant Thing” begins, Donahoe hands out slips of paper with individual items on the list, then calls out the numbers as he narrates the tale.
The first few items define happiness for a seven-year-old:
1. Ice cream.
2. Water fights.
3. Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV.
4. The colour yellow.
5. Things with stripes.
They get more complex as he gets older:
Knowing to jangle keys at the wildlife park if you want the otters to come out.
Not worrying about how much money you’re spending on holiday because all international currency looks like Monopoly money.
The feeling of calm which follows the realization that, although you may be in a regrettable situation, there’s nothing you can do about it.
There are throughout many astutely observed items about music, with accompanying snippets.
But audience members are not just enlisted to recite the items on the list. They also are recruited to play characters in the tale –the veterinarian who put his dog to sleep, his father, his first love. Sometimes Donahoe prompts the impromptu performers with simple lines of dialogue. Sometimes they are left to their own devices – such as the person who is asked to describe a book he hands her as if she’s been reading it, or the audience member asked to make a formal speech at a family gathering. Donahoe asks the “school counselor” to take off her shoe and sock so that she can use her sock as a sock puppet – which presumably puts the child patient more at ease, although it’s less likely to do the same for the recruited audience member.
The talent pool is deep in New York not just among professional actors but among theatergoers. Still, the set-up sparks an improvisational feel that has the potential to distract from a play that tells a real story, and has serious, even useful, and things to say about suicide and depression.
“If you got all the way through life without ever being heart crushingly depressed, you probably haven’t been paying attention.”
“Every Brilliant Thing” has been paying attention.
Every Brilliant Thing
Barrow Street Theater
Written by Duncan Macmillan, with Jonny Donahoe
Directed by George Perrin
Cast: Jonny Donahoe
Running time: One hour with no intermission
“Every Brilliant Thing” is scheduled to run through March 29, 2015