With “Everybody,” Branden Jacobs-Jenkins adapts “Everyman,” the 15th century morality play, for a modern secular New York audience. The idea here is inspired, and the world premiere production at the Signature can be inspiring; it even provoked some reflection on my own mortality. “Everybody” can also be very funny. But both the playwright and director Lila Neugebauer seem hell-bent on deliberately “destabilizing” the story, making it less accessible.
In the original allegory, Death summons Everyman before God to make an accounting of his life, and one by one, he is let down by Fellowship, Strength, Beauty, etc. Only Good Deeds comes through for him.
In Jacobs-Jenkins’ version, Death is the genial if impatient Marylouise Burke, and Everybody asks for help from some of the same allegorical aspects of his life, here renamed Friendship, Kinship, etc. (My favorite new name is Stuff.) Everybody wants them to accompany him in his accounting before God. Most initially react the same way – “So are you saying ‘God’ is real?” — and each one in turn makes up excuses to turn Everybody down.
The most hilarious of these exchanges is with Friendship, who swears fealty to Everybody with the words “I would literally go to hell and back for you,” shortly before Everyman asks her to accompany him.
“OH HEEEEELLLL NO!….”
“But you promised me ‘to hell –‘?
“’And back.’ Remember I said: ‘And back?’ We’ve always had these communication issues.”
It’s worth quoting some of what Friendship says to Everybody when we first see them together, because it is such a spot-on satire of contemporary friendships:
“I was just thinking about you, too! Oh, man! I miss you! What is going on? You seem a little depressed! Is it still the election? Is it the weather? Is it Global Warming? Or is it just politics? Is it identity politics? Or is it your job? Is it your career slash lack of a career? Is it that person we both hate? Oh no! It’s not that person we both love, is it? Is it your relationship slash lack of a relationship? Is it our relationship? Remember that time we sort of hooked up? That was weird, right? But it’s good we got over it, right? Right? We got over it, right? Oh man, Sports? Sports! Hey, have you seen that movie? Have you watched that cable show everyone’s talking about?…”
This is just one of the several moments that would clearly mark Branden Jacobs-Jenkins as a substantive talent, if he hadn’t already been established as such from his spate of recent plays, including “Gloria” and “An Octoroon,” which was a modern meta-theatrical adaptation of a 19th century melodrama about what was called miscegenation (the mixing of the races.)
Yet the playwright’s shrewdly observed moments apparently seemed insufficient to the creative team, who insisted on lots of extra….fiddling.
To begin with, the roles that five of the nine cast members portray during any performance are chosen by lottery (we see the performers line up in front of the stage behind the lottery cage – that’s what’s being pictured in the photograph above.) There are 120 possible combinations of role assignments, we’re told, and the five actors have memorized all the roles. (The night I saw the show, the character of Everybody was portrayed by Louis Cancelmi.) The reason for the lottery? An usher explains: “It is required that the actor’s roles be decided by lottery every night in an attempt to more closely thematize the randomness of death while also destabilizing pre-conceived notions about identity, blah blah blah…”
(Just to be clear, the “blah blah blah” is hers, not mine.)
The “usher” also turns out to be God. Jocelyn Bioh portrays them, and later in the show also plays Understanding. (Bioh is one of the four actors who don’t have to submit to the lottery.)
Some of the time the characters talk in complete darkness. Other times, the house lights go up, and stay up, during whole scenes. The actors don’t stay on stage, or even in the front of the theater, but often travel to the back, forcing the playgoers to twist around if we want to see what’s going on. Until the last few minutes of the 100-minute play, when there are a couple of surprising and entertaining stage effects, Laura Jellinek’s set design is simply a row of seats on stage that look exactly like the ones on which we’re sitting.
What is the message here – that life is difficult and dreary, so this show will be too?
The playwright also gives his characters too much to say that is digressive, repetitious or overlong (As terrific as it is, Friendship’s monologue is three times longer than my excerpt) – and there are several bouts of meta-theatrical interruption. Perhaps Jacobs-Jenkins is saying that modern life complicates things, and undercuts itself. We can no longer have a simple instructive play like “Everyman” anymore.
Maybe he’s even offering a counterargument to all those less benign people who are looking to impose their “strict” interpretations of old texts on 21st century life.
The result of what seems to be a kind of creative over-thinking, though, is that unlike the aim of its 15th century source, “Everybody” is not for everybody.
by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; Directed by Lila Neugebauer
Set design by Laura Jellinek, costume design by Gabriel Berry, Lighting design by Matt Frey, music and sound design by Brandon Wolcott, choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly
Cast Jocelyn Bioh, Brooke Bloom, Michael Braun, Marylouise Burke, Louis Cancelmi, Lilyana Tiare Cornell, David Patrick Kelly, Lakisha Michelle May and Chris Perfetti
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $30 until March 14, $40 afterwards
Everybody runs through March 19.