Three years of solitary writing time turns out to be productive. Seemingly every playwright produced lately has been thinking about the pandemic, as well as its accompanying loneliness, many different stabs at generational angst, dollops of horror, and addiction (more of those later this week). You see gestures and ideas repeated, many different attempts to get at similar feelings. Then you get to a play like The Comeuppance, which channels and condenses what’s been floating in the ether and brings it all to earth. Here’s a drama where Branden Jacobs-Jenkins both sums up and reconfigures the present moment.
The setting for The Comeuppance is unassuming enough: The audience starts off looking at a suburban porch cloaked in twilight, where a group of high-school friends are getting together to pregame before their 20th reunion. That’s a straightforward and direct premise, though if you know Jacobs-Jenkins’s wide-ranging taste you’ll assume a twist is coming. It arrives in the first stage direction: Emilio, played by Caleb Eberhardt, turns to the audience and becomes Death, his voice doubled into an ominous rumble (credit to Palmer Hefferan’s sound design). This Death is genial, speaking in contemporary lingo like ”work smarter not harder,” and occupies the bodies of the various alumni to deliver fourth wall-breaking monologues but holds back on revealing any specific psychompompic intentions until later.
Aside from having Death intrude, Jacobs-Jenkins hews close to realism as he sets out the drama, and the character portraits are deft. Emilio’s a successful artist who’s condescended to return to the DMV from Berlin with all his old resentments riled up, and he immediately starts grousing to Ursula (Brittany Bradford), who is hosting on her porch. She, in contrast, has become a homebody, left to herself for most of the pandemic after the death of the grandmother she was caring for, and now wearing an eye patch that limits her depth perception. Back in their teenage years, these characters were all members of a self-named “Multi-Ethnic Reject Group”—MERG, pronounced “merge”—of honors students who banded together in outsider solidarity at their parochial school (there’s a passing mention of attending chapel). The other members include Caitlin (Susannah Flood), married young to an older man who’s recently taken part in storming the Capitol, and Kristina (Shannon Tyo), an extroverted group-mother type whose work as a doctor during the pandemic has taken a psychic toll. Kristina’s cousin Paco (Bobby Moreno) shows up with her, though he’s only really a tangential member of MERG, having dated Caitlin in school; since then, he’s spent years in military service, accumulating traumas of his own.
Jacobs-Jenkins unwinds this information through awkward, looping conversations that capture the simultaneous forced bonhomie and confusion of people trying to reacquaint themselves with one another. The production runs for an uninterrupted and demanding two hours and ten minutes, in keeping with the feeling that we’re slowly sinking into familiarity with these people and the darkness around their edges. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set, cloaked in shadows by lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker, is both comfortingly generic, and at times more ominous than anything in Grey House. The MERGers have their own vocabulary and in-jokes—they mime snapping each other’s necks in order to interrupt each other—as well as their own misguided assumptions about everyone else. These are all plausibly funny and yet revealing. There’s a running gag, for instance, where half the group realized they assumed that Emilio came out at some point because he became an artist, as well as Emilio’s repeated assumption that Caitlin, stuck in her marriage to a former cop, must be unhappy. She is—all these people are some form of unhappy—though perhaps not in the ways he thinks she is. “You feel sorry for someone else,” she insists to him, “and I feel sorry for her too.”
That’s all rich territory, and Eric Ting, directing, has honed this group of Off Broadway regulars to cutting precision. Eberhardt, as Emilio, carries the bulk of the drama—do what you will with the fact that Jacobs-Jenkins is, like the character, a successful artist who went to a Catholic school in D.C. and is 38 years old—but makes sure not to iron out the character’s recurring, self-destructive spikiness to be palatable. Flood lends Kaitlin a lovely melancholy and is very funny when she gets high, while Moreno balances her with an intensity of feeling and anguish. Tyo—MVP of the past 12 months Off Broadway. considering her work in this, The Far Country, and Regretfully, So the Birds Are—has the already difficult assignment of showing up late to the party and then lands hefty, difficult monologues, first as Kristina and then as Death, that send The Comeuppance spiraling down toward its larger themes. Though, speaking of those themes, Bradford’s Ursula carries much of the weight of the production—her eye patch, we learn early on, relates to diabetes—and her quiet, immense performance becomes its center of gravity.
Death is everywhere in the play, not just speaking to the audience directly but cropping up unbidden in everyone’s dialogue: those snapped necks, classmates in wars, victims of the pandemic, references to Columbine and 9/11 (both of which happened when the characters were in high school). No one says the word “millennial” in the script, but this is the big elder-millennial anxiety drama, complete with a character calling in on video chat to say: “I want to say it’s too much for one lifetime, but then I think: What does that even mean? I look at my parents and I’m like, Wait, they lived through all the same shit and then some?” (Speaking of millennial touchpoints, brace for an incredible needle drop over the closing bows.) That kind of musing can caramelize into Twitter-friendly “as a former gifted kid” self-pity, and there are indeed elements of that in the play. There’s also a tradition of rose-tinted “where are we now?” friend group reunion stories, such as The Big Chill, that The Comeuppance is certainly of a piece with, though it’s more acid-toned than most of the genre. Those horror elements and intrusions from Death provide a bracing sense of unease and distance. No one is going to get too comfortable with each other on this porch, no matter how cross-faded they get.
Those elements also clue you into Jacobs-Jenkins’s concern for what it means to engage with this gathering as a piece of theater in itself. Death, early on, tells the audience that “I, like you, am a watcher,” here to see a play just like the rest of us, which creates this hyperawareness of the fact that we’re all sitting around preying, in our own way, on these people. (Or are we, like Death claims, caring for them too?) Then there’s also the fact that Emilio pretentiously refers to a reunion as a “dark ritual of the soul,” which makes all the realism of the porch hangout look a lot more like something more sacramental and sacrificial. Jacobs-Jenkins images the old-friend get-together as a sort of arcane religious rite (remember the Catholic schooling, and the fact that he’s Jacobs-Jenkins wrestled with a Middle English morality play), a way for everyone to bump against their big existential fears about getting older and losing their own identity, even if most of them prefer to stay on old jokes and new gossip. This pulls the everyday quality of the rest of the play in two directions: It makes a regular event seem as grand and sepulchral as a mass, and it also makes it all the more essential. We need this everyday theater. To understand each other, we have to gather in the dark.
The Comeuppance is at the Signature Theatre.