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Every Brilliant Thing

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray


Jonny Donahoe
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Even if you're an audience member rather than a practitioner, the most moving evening of theatre can be one you create yourself. Every Brilliant Thing has two credited writers, Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, the latter of whom is also the improvisational firebrand who acts as its host and lead character. But in this bewitching show that just opened at the Barrow Street Theatre, following acclaimed engagements in London and Edinburgh, you and the people around you are at least as important as they are—and perhaps even more so.

For although Macmillan's script may appear to be pretty definite, telling a straightforward story of a young man who copes with his mother's depression and suicide attempts across two decades by cataloging all the best things he notices in the world and inspiring others to do the same, in performance it literally cannot exist without you. Chances are, Donahoe will approach you before the show with a piece of paper and ask you to read it when he calls out its number—your "brilliant thing" to contribute, anything from "ice cream" and "the color yellow" to "piglets" and "Marlon Brando." (Mine, for the record, was "Deciding you're not too old to climb trees.") Or you may be asked to fulfill a more substantial role in the tale: as the veterinarian who delivers the sad news about his dog's death, as his father, as a sock puppet–bearing school counselor, as a Goethe lecturer, or as the person who captures his heart romantically.

There's more than a little levity inherent in these situations, especially as they're all integrated into the plot with an airtight weave. How can you not laugh when a random woman is asked to remove her sock, place it on her hand, and speak through it; when a man is "encouraged" to give a full wedding speech for a person he hardly knows; or when someone else freezes in terror when asked to summarize The Sorrows of Young Werther? So much of this occurs during the 59-minute running time, in fact, that at a certain point you're no longer able to separate what's written on the page from what Donahoe and his makeshift troupe fashion on the fly. And watching how all this unfolds is a huge part of the play's fun.

It is, however, no gimmick. By involving everyone in the theater in the process, Macmillan and Donahoe establish communal trust and responsibility that deeply invest you in the list's expansion. You instinctively understand the universality of the happenings documented, how the process of sharing the items—which grow more eclectic and personal as the list approaches a million entries—slowly transforms you from a gathering of individuals into a single mind that moves, unimpeded, toward a specific, powerful goal.

The closer that goal gets, the closer you get to the people next to you, in front of you, behind you, and to Donahoe. He's excellent, by the way: a genial emcee who is able to craft a full complement of family and friends for his character without ever dipping his toe even so much in alternate voices. But it's his ability to coax portrayals of surprising pathos and sly humor out of even the most reluctant scene partner that's his most memorable accomplishment. One imagines a lengthy and intricate rehearsal process with director George Perrin that helped hone the interactions and whittle away the excess from the concept, until the current lean, almost painfully intimate, staging is all that was left.

Donahoe gradually recedes into the background, until he's merely one voice among many: the center of a story, perhaps, but only a small part of it. We come to realize that this man's life, like all of our lives, is ultimately an accumulation of personalities and experiences that, properly handled, can extend beyond our own narrow grasp and combine into something far greater than we could ever make on our own. And as that final form takes shape, dozens of ideas swirling together to unite us across age, gender, ethnic, and class barriers, Every Brilliant Thing becomes not just affecting, but about as brilliant as theatre can get.


Every Brilliant Thing
Through March 29
Running Time: 1 hour 5 minutes
Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Street (corner of 7th Avenue)
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix


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