“The Comeuppance” both begins and ends with Death. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ dark, smart play features Death as a character, hanging out with five former classmates during the night of their twentieth high school reunion. In this well-acted but often frustrating production, which is opening tonight at Signature, Death is not portrayed by a single performer. Rather, he/she/it takes over each of the five characters in turn to deliver a series of chatty monologues using their voice and body.
Death’s presence doesn’t necessarily mean any of the five are soon to die. Death explains to us: “it has been a busier than average few years for me so, as a result, I have been experimenting with a new approach to things. I’ve decided to make it more of a practice to drop by and check in on people…”
We soon see why Death might be drawn to these particular people, since they seem to feel their lives are over, even though they are all just around thirty-eight years old; most of them are comfortably middle class and well-educated. They were the brightest kids in their school, members of a clique they liked to call MERGE – “Mixed Ethnic Reject Group.” Their youthful ambition, however, has been replaced by disappointment and tangible troubles.
Some of their unhappiness is the result of bad life choices, but I suspect the title of the play is not about any of these individuals getting the punishment they deserve, but rather something more collective and cosmic. As a classmate says: “…look at all the shit we’ve been through – It’s like too much, Columbine, 9/11, the war, the war, the endless war, then Trump, then COVID, whatever the fuck is going on in the Supreme Court… Roe v. Wade….”
Jacobs-Jenkins, who is himself 38, makes his points about his generation’s general reaction to trauma — their feelings of loss, grief and regret — while creating characters who are distinct individuals. It certainly helps that they are portrayed by first-rate New York stage actors.
As they gather one by one on Ursula’s porch in the Maryland suburbs, we slowly get to know them. Ursula (Brittany Bradford) seems the most genial of the classmates, who gets along with all the others, and doesn’t apparently have a history of embittering entanglements with any of them (as all the others have with each other.) But she has had the most objectively difficult life. Effectively orphaned from birth, she recently lost her grandmother, and has become something of a shut-in. She doesn’t want to go with the rest of her old MERGE gang to the official reunion at their old school, St. Anthony’s School, a Catholic academy in Washington D.C, because diabetes is making her go blind.
Emilio (Caleb Eberhardt), an artist who left his hometown in Maryland years ago to live in Berlin, has a five-month-old daughter back in Germany, although he’s vague about the mother. He tells Ursula a series of German words that describe feelings for which there is no equivalent in English, the most familiar of which is schadenfreude, “finding joy in other people’s misery.” Then he says: “I keep looking for a word to describe this specific feeling of dread that comes with attending your twentieth high school reunion.” He doesn’t say whether there is a German word for judging everyone else harshly, but that’s what he does all night.
Caitlin (Susannah Flood), who was the smartest girl in the class, has stayed home to raise a family, marrying an older ex-cop who Emilio (and perhaps the others) see as a right-wing nutjob (“Michael was not in the group that actually stormed the capital,” Caitlin protests.)
Kristin (Shannon Tyo) is a doctor with five kids who has been drinking too much ever since it was “all hands on deck” during COVID.
Kristin brings along her cousin Francisco (Bobby Moreno) who was not part of MERGE but went to the same high school, and is Exhibit A for past entanglements. He suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome after serving several tours of duty as a marine in Iraq.
As the play progresses, we come to feel the weight of their lives and regrets, and understand the intricacy of their connections with one another.
At the same time, however, there are some baffling choices for the production that undermine our ability to engage with the play. When Death takes over each character, the voices are not the actors’ natural instrument, but speech that is electronically amplified and distorted, with an echo effect, rendering these monologues occasionally indecipherable, and always annoying. (Wouldn’t the change of lighting have been sufficient to clue us in?) These are not the only moments that make sound designer Palmer Hefferan work overtime. That crucial speech about Columbine, 9/11, the war? That’s delivered by a classmate named Simon, who is not on stage. He canceled attending the reunion at the last minute, and is speaking to his friends (and to the audience) through a smartphone.
Theatergoers have been vocal about the lack of intermission in a production that has a running time of two hours and ten minutes. Normally, I would think, this would be done to avoid interrupting the momentum. But whatever momentum is in the play is already amply interrupted by those monologues by Death, and also by long speeches by the humans. These don’t necessarily feel artificial, since people are more likely to sum up their lives in long speeches at a reunion than anywhere else. (Which may be why school reunions are a familiar setting for plays, such as Will Arbery’s much-acclaimed “Heroes of the Fourth Turning “) It’s also made clear that the characters in “The Comeuppance” are not just morose, they’re verbose: While still in high school, they developed a playful signal (mimicking a broken neck) to indicate when one of them was rambling. “The Comeuppance” does reach a climactic moment of exploding tension, followed by low-key revelation. But given all those monologues, and the many moments that feel like random chit-chat of the sort that could happen in real life, there is no ceaseless build-up of dramatic intensity that’s in danger of being interrupted by an intermission. (Maybe the randomness is the very reason why there is no intermission — so the playwright isn’t forced to write an end-of-Act I cliffhanging moment.)
It’s unfair to blame director Eric Ting completely for these gratuitously imposed challenges to audience comfort, clarity and patience. Jacobs-Jenkins’ 2017 play, “Everybody” with a different director, also fiddled with theatrical norms at audience expense. (Details in my review.) Coincidentally or not, that play too featured the character Death. And his 2015 play “Gloria” tells the story of the aftermath of a mass killing in an office.
Death has been on the playwright’s mind for a while, and we benefit from his contemplation. When Death is speaking through Kristin, for example, she says:
“…what I appreciate about doctors, more than anything, is the work they do in preparing for my interceding. It used to be more people had no idea what was happening and I will tell you that that was exhausting. It used to be a whole lot of “Wait, what!? What!? What’s going on!?” Now it’s much more, “Oh? Okay.”
A playwright brilliant enough to make us think about life and death in a new way should probably be excused for making us wait to pee.
Signature Theater through June 25
Running time: Two hours and ten minutes with no intermission.
Tickets: $49 – $139
Written by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Eric Ting
Set design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costume design by Jennifer Moeller and Miriam Kelleher, lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker, sound design by Palmer Hefferan, magic design by Skylar Fox, intimacy coordinator Ann C. James.
Cast: Brittany Bradford as Ursula, Caleb Eberhardt as Emilio, Susannah Flood as Caitlin, Bobby Moreno as Francisco, and Shannon Tyo as Kristin