Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has built an elegant reputation these past few years. Now he’s taken to rewriting Everyman, the medieval morality play, dating from the late Middle Ages and fiddled with by many hands sine then. He calls his reworking, at Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre, Everybody. The shift in title relates to righting the sexist implication of the name and word “everyman.” This is the 21st century — we know there’s more than men among us.
The point of the plot, in which an Everyman — or here, an Everybody — receives a visit from Death, is to instruct spectators on the need for living the good life. If not, they’ll go to their grave without the one thing they can bring along: a good name.
The idea behind the original narrative was to frighten medieval audiences, mostly illiterate, out of their wits. Here, the script is fleshed out by Everybody attempting to accomplish a pressing task in his, her — let’s say their — last hours. (Jacobs-Jenkins calls for two outsized skeletons, which are choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly.) They try to coax someone or something from their past to accompany them on their final journey.
Everybody also appeals — futilely, as it inevitably turns out — to figures representing kinship, cousinship, friendship and possessions. Everybody also attempts to bring strength, beauty, mind and understanding with them to the grave. However, all those embodiments refuse to go.
Overall, Jacobs-Jenkins’ update is fair to middling. The author of the truly outstanding An Octoroon, War, Appropriate and the especially intriguing Gloria has fun with his contemporary tweaking, but slowly, very slowly, the air is let out of the party balloon.
The playwright does begin with a lovely surprise — it’s the reason that the program is only distributed at the end of the play. It comes in the form of the usher who gives the usual cellphone-fire-exit admonition. With little change, God the materializes (in the form of Jocelyn Bioh, as jolly as any jolly usher you might encounter). Soon, so does Death (in the form of Marylouise Burke, who is thoroughly delightful as always and inspired casting).
Then the playwright sends Death into the audience, where they select five ticket-buyers (OK, so they’re not ticket-buyers) as candidates to die. One will become Death’s newest victim. The prospective corpse will be determined by the five candidates themselves as they pull a ball (what looked like a ping-pong ball to me) from a spinning cage.
Now the entire Irene Diamond stage becomes the set. For most of the 90 minutes of Everybody, designer Laura Jellinek has 18 attached chairs placed downstage facing the audience. Lighting designer Matt Frey gets to raise and lower the house lights often.
When the mortality ball gets picked, the fun that the audience has had up until now with the likes of the usher, of God, of Death — it all begins to dissipate. As the script dictates, Everybody must encounter Friendship, Kinship, Cousinship and Stuff, and those scenes are neither amusing nor enlightening. They’re heavy-handed and repetitive. As we wait for the dramatically inevitable, the same stretches occur when Strength, Beauty, Mind and Understanding stand with Everybody by a now-visible grave.
A latecomer to the proceedings is Love, who treats Everybody in a different manner. Initially miffed because Everybody didn’t so much as bother to conjure him, he’s ready to leave through the auditorium door. He only agrees to stick around if he can spend a few minutes humiliating Everybody. Which he does, insisting that Everybody run circles (rectangles, really) through the audience while shouting dictated sentences. Humiliation from Love? How much sense does this make? In whose definition of true love does the notion of humiliation appear? And what’s the bottom-line meaning of taking Love to the grave? Wouldn’t Love be the one invisible entity that someone — some Everybody — would want to leave behind for their survivors to cling to?
Jacobs-Jenkins is dealing with religious thought — as Everyman did hundreds of years ago. He’s trading in the profound, even as he inserts a palpable laugh-line from time to time. But as Everybody goes along on his obsessive journey, the playwright succeeds not at being profound but at being profoundly shallow. It’s not only the onstage grave that’s dug a few feet down.
Indeed, it’s tough to be profound when a gimmick — that little spinning cage with the balls — propels the production. Incidentally, each ball plucked from the cage informs the lucky plucker which roles they’ll play at that performance, while Bioh, Burge and Chris Perfetti as Love keep their parts. So does young Lilyana Tiare Cornell, who has a brief turn as a wailing girl and is later seen as cheerful Time.
As directed by Lila Neugebauer, whose career is red-hot right now, the good-sport actor never know what they’re in for show to show. David Patrick Kelly was Everybody at the performance I saw, and was strong at it. But there’s not too much reason to describe the performances given by Brooke Bloom, Michael Braun, Louis Cancelmi and Lakisha Michelle May. As perfectly fine and lively as they were, their roles are always up for grabs. More power to them for having to master five roles and being ready to play them at a ping-pong-ball’s notice.
What did I take away from Everybody? I’m not quite sure — certainly not Love. But as George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart once put it, you can’t take it with you.