A clever modern morality play brings a touch of randomness to the stage by assigning five roles via lottery each night.
Morality plays have long existed to try and counter the fact that humankind is innately kind of awful. With obvious metaphors and sweeping gestures, they try to temper our worst aspects—at least according to what any given society at any given time considers to be “the worst.” One famous such morality play is Everyman, a medieval English drama based on a medieval Dutch drama based on, one can assume, something else medieval.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Everybody, receiving its Midwest premiere via The Brown Paper Box Co., riffs on Everyman while creating a morality play for a more modern, inclusive, and existentially muddled age. In crafting an updated tale of life, death and what we carry from one to the other, Jacobs-Jenkins has added a paean to randomness: five of the parts are chosen by lottery each night. Extremely Catholic monks of old probably wouldn’t approve, but the talented cast assembled for director Erin Shea Brady’s production is evidence enough that those monks can stuff it. Also evidence: the play was recently named as a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The randomized roles in question are the titular Everybody (played on opening night by the stupendous Alys Dickerson) and various personified ideas like Friendship, Kinship and Stuff. On the orders of God (Chelsea Dàvid), as carried about by Death (Kenny the Bearded), Everybody has been ordered to come to the after (a.k.a. die) and make a sort of presentation about their life. It is specified that they can bring someone with them, but they soon learn that many of their cherished relationships—their friendships, blood relations, and material possessions—outright refuse to accompany them on the journey.
Hal Cosentino, Francesca Sobrer, Alex Madda, and Donovan Session are the other four actors who play the lottery each night. Session was exceptional on opening as the chatty embodiment of Friendship, delivering a monologue that mashes together every possible topic of conversation two friends could have. And when Tyler Anthony Smith later emerges from the audience as the embodiment of Love, he brings with him a wonderful, kindly deadpan that stands in stark contrast to the looney scenes that have preceded him. (He then proceeds to make Everybody get half-naked and run around shouting, so I guess “less looney” is all relative.)
Jacobs-Jenkins’s script is funny, clever and endlessly self-aware—before turning into God, Dàvid opens the play as a loquacious usher—but it is deeply felt and never glib, something that’s becoming a trademark of his work. Or at least some of his work, as Jacobs-Jenkins refuses to be pinned down. Put Everybody next to his plays Gloria and An Octoroon, and you’ll see a genius unencumbered by any one style. That versatility is why he’s among the most exciting dramatists working in America today—and it’s also why his relative marginalization in this city is infuriating.
While Jacobs-Jenkins’ script is well-served by these performers, the production itself sometimes loses the plot. The set, for instance—a blank stage, black curtains, two chairs and a step ladder on the sides—is the kind mostly used for improv shows. And it’s not that said set betrays a lack of money (which it also does, but that’s fine), it’s that it betrays a lack of care, something that is consistent throughout the rest of the piece. Despite a strong cast with a few real standouts—Dickerson is definitely someone to a watch—this Everybody is still squishy all around, leaving the actors to their own devices to carry the thing off.
There are many who won’t share these qualms. In Chicago, especially, the quality of the acting is prized above all else. Perhaps that’s why Jacobs-Jenkins’ more thrilling and experimental work can’t seem to find a home with the city’s major houses. And it’s not as though this show is a failure. It’s a success, just a more limited one than it should be. Theatre fans should by all means flood the tiny Pride Arts Center Buena space where Everybody is running through August 12th. Brown Paper Box Co. is even offering discounts and punch cards for repeat viewers, a smart move that’s also in keeping with the play’s generous spirit.
Go see Everybody. But when you leave, don’t be afraid to ask for more from this city’s theatre artists and institutions. If Branden Jacobs-Jenkins can drag the morality play into the modern age, surely the Chicago theatre scene can drag itself out of the ‘70s and into 2018.
Brown Paper Box Co. at The Buena at Pride Arts Center. Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Erin Shea Brady. With ensemble cast. Running time: 90 minutes; no intermission.