Branden Jacobs-Jenkins — a MacArthur genius, a Pulitzer finalist, and a recipient of Yale’s Windham–Campbell Literature Prize — gets my award for most restless playwright. Five of his works have been produced in New York since 2010; none seem to come from the same universe. Gloria, which horrified me (and not in the good way), was an office satire about magazine menials that turned into a Grand Guignol; An Octoroon, which thrilled me (is there a bad way to be thrilled?), reclaimed plantation melodrama as racial inquiry. I don’t know what Appropriate was, except a mess, albeit one that got its share of praise and nominations. Neighbors was suburban minstrelsy done in blackface. Jacobs-Jenkins seemed to be making a beeline to everywhere.
Not knowing what to expect from a playwright is a good thing; so are formal daring and wit. Jacobs-Jenkins’s plays are all very smart, very funny. But even in the ones I’ve liked, the tone is typically skittish and baldly provocative, the way some people can be when they overcompensate for crashing a party. The various genre disguises come off as ways of getting past the bouncer, though I’ve never understood who that bouncer is, exactly. What is the source of the anxiety that seems to waft off the stage at Jacobs-Jenkins’s plays, energizing some, addling others?
His latest, Everybody, opening tonight in a terrific production directed by Lila Neugebauer at the Signature, may offer a clue. It, too, is a genre piece, or really an Ur-genre piece, based as it is on the late-15th-century morality play Everyman. Among the oldest extant theater works in English — so old it’s Middle English — it is an allegory of mortality and salvation that was performed on outdoor stages or pageant wagons for early Tudor crowds 100 years before Shakespeare. Read now it seems in some ways eternally modern, not just because mortality is evergreen but also because the story, being allegorical, is broad enough to reflect eternal human nature. The title character, called upon by Death to come to God for judgment, tries to wriggle out of it; when he can’t, he asks to be allowed to bring a companion with him for support. Sure, but good luck with that, says Death essentially, and indeed, one by one, all of the folks and supports he hopes will help him on his journey — Fellowship, Kindred, Cousin, and Goods, not to mention his own Discretion, Strength, Beauty, and Five Wits — beg off. Only with the help of his paltry Good Deeds may he go before God.
Jacobs-Jenkins is quite faithful to this part of the plot: We get God, Death, and Everyman (here generalized as Everybody) doing roughly the same things they did half a millennium ago. Some of the subsidiary names are changed (Fellowship is now Friendship; Goods is now Stuff) and their characterizations are given a modern gloss. Friendship, for instance, is quickly sketched with hilariously insincere, fair-weather dialogue: “Ugh, one of my parents is being so annoying,” she says vaguely. “How is your one family member that I always ask you about?” Stuff is, mordantly, portrayed as a hustler boyfriend, the kind who makes you fall in love with him before zooming off on a Vespa.
I say “she” and “him”: Those two characters were played, the night I saw Everybody, by Lakisha Michellemay and Louis Cancelmi, both spot-on. But you are likely to see a different cast, one of 120 different possible permutations, if you go. Friendship and Goods, as well as Kinship, Cousinship, and Everybody, are played by five actors whose specific assignments are not determined until partway into the play, when God, incarnated here as one of the theater’s ushers, conducts a ping-pong-ball lottery. (This God-usher is, at all performances, played by the hilarious Jocelyn Bioh; she and Death — the counterintuitively cute Marylouise Burke — are two of four characters that do not rotate.) Jacobs-Jenkins barely bothers to frame the casting lottery as anything more than a gimmick; as the God-usher tells us, it is “an attempt to more closely thematize the randomness of death while also destabilizing preconceived notions about identity, blah, blah, blah.”
And here is where we begin to understand the deep energies of Jacobs-Jenkins’s dramaturgy. He is a destabilizer, never more so than in Everybody. The play is trenchant, certainly, and often quite moving, as our generic stand-in fights so desperately to hold on to any semblance of the life he has known. Played by the white-haired, white-bearded David Patrick Kelly the night I saw it, his struggle to let go of his friends, his strength, and even his senses (“I really thought you would be with me through to the end”) was particularly wrenching. But mortality is only half the allegory in Everyman; salvation is the other half, and to the extent the play is a morality play that’s because it offers a specifically Roman Catholic moral: You can be saved by Jesus. Unable to dramatize that with any seriousness, Jacobs-Jenkins basically jettisons the entire sacramental theme; instead of Everyman’s being whipped by Confession (with “sharp scourges,” as the original has it) he is drill-sergeanted by a newcomer: Love. The conception of this character, played as a bit of a whiner by Chris Perfetti, is fascinating: Love seeks to humiliate Everybody. (Everybody is forced to undress and run around the theater shouting, “This body is just meat for worms.”) But like all the other substitutions this has the effect of turning the meaning of the play inside out. Everybody is basically about the fear of death; there’s even a delightful danse macabre to terrify you. Everyman is about the horror that awaits us after.
Without dramatizing sin, you can’t have the Everyman plot: “Ye think sin in the beginning full sweet, Which in the end causeth thy soul to weep.” Without a common faith system, you can’t have the Everyman motive of correction. All Jacobs-Jenkins can do with this marvelous dinosaur bone is shellac the surface with sarcasm and lower our expectations. (The God-usher tells us that the play is “really wise and meaningful” and asks us to be “a little forgiving of its storytelling quirks.”) By the end, despite Jacobs-Jenkins’s tricks and Neugebauer’s staging savvy — this is another perfectly rendered production from the director of The Wolves — Everybody offers only its destabilization, and a decidedly weak-tea moral: Be nice, lead with understanding, and “maybe let’s all be a little better about recycling.” Who could disagree?
That’s the problem with genre writing: Most of what can be said meaningfully in a form has already been said by those who needed to invent it. It’s not so much that Jacobs-Jenkins has crashed the party, fun as it may be; it’s that he’s arrived too late.
Everybody is at the Signature Center through March 19.