Aside from Frank Wildhorn, the two words I least want to hear in conjunction with a show I’m about to attend are audience participation. The prospect of being dragooned into awkward dialogue or, worse, public dancing fills me with dread — and a certain amount of resentment. Is it not the playwright’s job to write the story, the cast’s job to tell it? Aside from being an alert and openhearted observer, why should I have to be involved?
Every Brilliant Thing, a touching and unusual new work at the Barrow Street Theatre, is the exception that proves the rule. For one thing, your participation is requested, genially and semi-privately, instead of extorted in public. Before the play proper begins, the show’s only performer, a British comic named Jonny Donahoe, greets audience members at their seats, handing out sheets of paper from a ragged cardboard box. On each sheet is written a numbered item from a master list of “brilliant things”; he asks recipients to be prepared to read theirs aloud when, during the course of the hour-long performance, he calls the corresponding number. (Mine was No. 1427: “Not worrying about how much money you’re spending on holiday because all International currency looks like Monopoly money.”) As we will soon learn, the list is the creation of the unnamed character Donahoe plays, who began it as a 7-year-old to cheer his mother, and perhaps himself, with all the pleasures and amusements that make life wonderful. “Ice cream.” “People falling over.” “Kind old people who aren’t weird and don’t smell unusual.” His mother, you see, has just tried to kill herself.
Treating a very serious subject in a somewhat lighthearted or oblique way is a British trademark, and indeed Every Brilliant Thing began life as a short story (called “Sleeve Notes”) by an English writer named Duncan Macmillan. In dramatizing it over the course of several years with the help of the director George Perrin, Macmillan greatly expanded the scope of the tale, which now takes its main character from that early crisis through midlife. The repercussions of his mother’s depression are explored at different ages, as the list, whose nature mutates from offering to obsession, grows surreally toward a million entries. Called out on cue from the audience, those entries are charming in themselves, and in a way dramatize a coming-of-age. No. 1,857 is “Planning a declaration of love.” “Sex” is No. 9,996.
But the bigger change came with the addition of Donahoe, who as a comic was used to improvising with crowds. For while handing out the brilliant things before the show, he is also “casting” it: selecting audience members whom he will later ask to portray such characters as the dad, the veterinarian, the lover, and the school psychologist. How they do so, with his subtle guidance, is somehow both natural and thrilling. (You may wonder whether they’re plants; they’re not.) The play will be different, for instance, depending on whether the person he selects to play the psychologist is wearing socks or not, and on whether the lover he picks is male or female. (For that matter, Donahoe’s role can be played, and has been, by anyone of any gender or ethnicity.) Far from abstractly decorating the story, these audience performers are thus crucial elements of it: One comforts the boy when his dog is dying, another makes an extemporaneous wedding speech, another gives a lecture on The Sorrows of Young Werther. (If you are not an expert on Goethe, you can simply read the blurb on back of the paperback Donohoe provides.) That these audience members were, on the night I saw it, uniformly moving despite being completely different from the people who would have taken those roles the day before and those who would take them next, says something profound about the nature of randomness in human relations. Most important, it may be something that could not have been said in any other way.
I found this all quite beautiful, the more so for the absolute nakedness of the physical staging. (There’s not even a stage, just a small playing area, perhaps five foot by five, in the midst of the seats.) And Donahoe is so good you will have a hard time shaking the idea that the story is autobiographical. (It isn’t.) But I did begin to wonder, at some point, whether the fantastic conceit and expert execution were beginning to blot out the grim story at their root. Suicide should never be a MacGuffin. It took me the long ride home on the subway, with its crush of straphangers half ignoring and half participating in each other’s lives, to realize that the play’s narrative concepts weren’t interchangeable gimmicks, handy to any tale, but a specific and deep response to the work of staying alive. It’s after all a job that requires hundreds of people and a million things to live for.
Every Brilliant Thing is at the Barrow Street Theatre through March 29.