The road through life and the path toward death are examined in the unusual and provocative staging of “Everybody,” a play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins presented by Signature Theatre. Under Lila Neugebaur’s direction, the drama, clearly inspired by a 15th Century morality play, is encased in a free-wheeling staging that has an entertaining sweep but somewhat defuses whatever messages are intended by an effort to be extra showy.
In London I saw a similarly inspired drama titled “Everyman,” written by Carol Ann Duffy and presented by the National Theatre. It was much more focused, with a view of a man’s life under inspection as he heads toward a confrontation with death. His pursuit of material values was under examination with a review involving family, friends and various characters representing passion, vanity, sensuality, goods and other aspects of the life he has led. (See my review via Search under Special Reports.)
In “Everybody”—is the genderless title a nod to political correctness?—the cast is exceptionally talented. There is a gimmick—those playing various allegorical roles draw lottery balls at each performance to see which parts they will have. Thus they have to memorize all the roles to be ready for their assignments. These versatile cast members include Brooke Bloom, Michael Braun, Louis Cancelmi, David Patrick Kelly, and Lakisha Michelle May. Other casting in the play is constant.
At the outset Jocelyn Bioh makes the customary announcement about turning off cell phones. She seems to be going on too long, as if she is trying to turn the slot into an egotistical performance. But soon she morphs into God, as she leads us into the play that unfolds before a long row of chairs, with cast members coming forth from among the audience members and from the sidelines.
We meet the ever-amusing Marylouise Burke as Death, who seems to enjoy being the Grim Reaper, whom we all—Everybody-- will eventually face. The playwright has created other characters symbolizing Friendship/Strength, Kinship/Mind, Cousinship/Beauty, Stuff/Senses and All the Shitty Evil Things.
At the performance I saw the key Everybody was played by the vibrant Lakisha Michelle May. She is the one whose life is examined in relation to the others, and who is slowly but surely being led to omnipotent Death. As the journey progresses she meets the various allegorical figures in the review of her life and relationships. She attempts to enlist them to accompany her on her journey but one by one they say no thanks and drop out.
The problem with the play is that lots of the above emerges as muddled and there is need for a much clearer focus. Exactly what is the moral? Live life to the fullest while we’re here? Build solid relationships? Abide by correct values? On the other hand, the production is consistently entertaining given the collective enthusiasm and skill of the cast and the inventiveness of the direction. The theater is alive with action, not only on the stage, but enveloping the audience. Toward the end, there is a striking appearance of two large puppet skeletons, manipulated to show closeness as they approach each other from opposite sides of the stage.
“Everybody” is an entertaining production, with loads of implications about human behavior communicated by solid performances, but the play needs sharpening. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-244-7529. Reviewed February 24, 2017.