Review: ‘Every Bright Thing’ at the Geffen Playhouse enumerates the joys that make life livable

“Every Brilliant Thing,” a clever, interactive solo performance piece by British theater artists Duncan McMillan and Johnny Donahoe, enumerates the joys that make life livable.

Ice cream, water fights, the color yellow, those three names appear at the top of the list of descriptors. These items are from visitor members Daniel K. The show, which opens Thursday at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kennis Theater, reads at the behest of Isaac (“Billions”), a suave performer who randomly assigns theatergoers slips of paper to write itemized delights on.

List numbers are called and civilian visitors are expected to deliver their items immediately. No. 6: Roller Coasters. No. 24: Spaghetti and Meatballs. No. 25: Wearing a cape.

The list exceeded the initial goal of 1,000 items. This practice is not a passive one for the narrator. His project began when he was 7 years old, after his mother attempted suicide. It was the first of several attempts that marked his life with happy landmarks like his first serious kiss and high school graduation.

The narrator provides some specific information about his life without getting lost in detail. We learn about his first experience of death in childhood. An audience member is drafted in to play the kindly vet who has to put down his beloved dog.

The scene is crafted with a careful balance of poignancy and humor. The awkwardness of a non-professional taking the stage to play the role of death-administrator is inherently funny. But pet heartbreak is one that most people can easily identify with.

Another audience member is assigned to play the role of the narrator’s father, a naive man whose mood is revealed by the selection of jazz records he plays alone in his study. A difficult fatherly task awaits him: he must try to communicate with his young son because his mother is in the hospital.

The son’s response to everything his father does is the same: “Why?” Why should he fasten his seat belt? Why did his mother try to hurt herself?

Understanding has to wait but confrontation cannot be postponed. Hence the idea of ​​the list, a gift to his mother and himself. Both need to be reminded of the everyday joys around them.

The boy wants his mother by his side. But he doesn’t want to fall into the same pit of despair. Suicide is not a solitary issue. “It’s common for suicidal kids to blame themselves,” she explains. He couldn’t help but wonder if he had failed his mother in some way. The answer is no, but the question never goes away.

“Every Brilliant Thing” premiered at Britain’s Ludlow Fringe Festival in 2013, came to New York the following year and was broadcast by HBO in 2016. The show was presented at AD on the Broad Stage in Santa Monica in 2017 The production starred Donahoe, a British comedian, writer and performer who helped adapt the piece with McMillan (author of the wrenching play about addiction “People, Places and Things”) from McMillan’s short story “Sleeve Notes”.

The Englishness of the piece – evident in the use of ‘brilliant’ in the title – was part of the work’s understated charm. Anxiety and grief have found playful ways around the reserves of a culture that has difficulty addressing painful issues directly.

The Geffen Playhouse production directed by Colm Summers is at once more abstract and more emotional. Isaac’s smiling affability sets a different tone than Donahoe’s shy guy demeanor. Where Isaacs seemed to prefer interacting with the audience, Donahoe stepped forward with a sheepish smile, as if acknowledging the mutual embarrassment in a performance that wore his melancholy like a second skin.

I wondered if Isaac might have benefited from tweaking the script more strongly to fit his own performance. “Every Brilliant Thing” has a lot of flexibility, but the universal pattern it identifies is made more vivid by the character-centered specificity.

The performance is nevertheless a delight, with the Isaac Audrey Skirball bounding around the Kennis Theatre, which has been reconfigured for the show in a circular group therapy arrangement with the audience. Sybil Wickersheimer’s set is full of sunny touches that suggest creating a magical space for a child to banish domestic sadness.

Music, which plays such an important role in the protagonist’s family life, is seamlessly incorporated by sound designer Stephanie Lynn Yakvetsky. Ray Charles’ “Drone in My Own Tears,” a favorite of the narrator’s mother, captures the play’s brutal exuberance.

The audience plays an important role in determining the success of the production. Choosing a reluctant or timid person to play a role can take the steam out of an exchange. On opening night at the Geffen Playhouse, I was aware that not all audience volunteers are created equal. The cheerful mood was all forgiving but the playfulness sometimes felt like one-way traffic.

There is a contradictory quality to Isaac’s performance that reveals itself over time as a defense against the depression bestowed upon him. After a relationship (involving a game stand-in from the audience) crashes, he can no longer maintain the same frantic pace. The low is made more real by descent from a manic high.

The list of “every brilliant thing” approaches one million items. Many of them are very strange (“Peeing in the ocean and no one knows,” “Inappropriate music played at an emotional moment,”), but each reminds us of the glimpses of joy that are as much a part of our lives as our greatest sorrows. .

‘Every Shining Thing’

Where: Audrey Skirball Kennis Theater at Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., LA

When: 8 pm Wednesday-Friday, 3 and 8 pm Saturday, 2 and 7 pm Sunday. It will end on October 15

Tickets: $39-$129

Contact: (310) 208-2028 or

Running time: 1 Hour 10 Minutes (Without Intermission)

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