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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 21, 2017

David Patrick Kelly and Marylouise Burke
Photo by Monique Carboni

Should Death really be so appealing? It's an odd question, I know, but also oddly germane to the theatrical conundrum that is Everybody, the new play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins that just opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center. This highly egalitarian, contemporary retelling of the 15th-century morality play Everyman wants to push as many of the original's buttons as possible, while also offending as little as it can get away with. That involves appropriating its means of anthropomorphizing a swirling spectrum of concepts including, yes, mortality itself. But who wouldn't want to spend forever with a Grim Reaper as delightfully daffy as Marylouise Burke?

The estimable comic actress, who's perhaps best known for her association with the comedies of David Lindsay-Abaire, transforms Death into an elegant but kooky grandmother: both not here at all, and more here than anyone. Equal parts lovable, bossy, and terrifying, and with that squeaky voice that masks an abject seriousness beneath its dizzy quaver, Burke is, as she always is at her best, a marvel of surgical precision. Even when there's nothing to laugh at, you're chortling because she's just so improbable, yet just so inevitable, that everything she does is purely right. A production that makes you long to jump into the grave alongside her, though, is somewhat missing the point. Okay, it's a lot missing the point.

Everyman promotes an unapologetically Catholic view of life, the universe, and everything: We're all flawed, we're all slaves to the world, and we're all destined to die alone—only by practicing good works and partaking of the Sacraments that bring us closer to God. Death, if unavoidable, is the terrifying enemy; God is the only one who can save us from ourselves. If it's unsurprising that this new riff would nudge the story in a more secular direction, with a lot of the specifics excised in favor of feel-good be-nice-to-each-other generalities, the notion is ultimately the same, right?

Not if Death acts and sounds like a better traveling companion than He does. Even stripped of the "threat of eternal damnation" element, Everybody aspires to be educational, but there are limits to what it's able to teach us when the opposing side is not an imposing threat. And without other forces, explicit or otherwise, effecting their pull on the figure at the work's center, suspense—or, for that matter, ground level interest—does not come easy. God (Jocelyn Bioh, droll and incisive) may have a parodically endless but thoroughly delightful preshow speech that progresses, strangely seamlessly, from discussions of cellphones and candy to the nature of infinite being, but still feels designed as a non-presence throughout.

Jacobs-Jenkins is a dazzlingly versatile playwright, as at home twisting up racial melodramas (An Octoroon) and dissertations on alienation (his Pulitzer Prize finalist Gloria) as modern explorations of our prejudicial past (Appropriate, Neighbors), but neither he nor his director, Lila Neugebauer, can overcome this fundamental flaw that excises too much weight from something that's naturally inclined to float away. It's even tough to focus too much on the intended core, that the struggle to make sense of where we are now and what comes after is one that belongs to everyone, and that any of us could just as easily move in another direction without the proper agitation. So, via lottery, the actor playing the lead Everybody, who must learn to leave the world behind and focus on doing the right things, is randomly chosen from a pool of five actors of various races and genders (Brooke Bloom, Michael Braun, Louis Cancelmi, David Patrick Kelly, Lakisha Michelle May, all of whom "enter" from seats in the audience); the other four are tasked with playing other, smaller roles in the saga.

At the performance I attended, Everybody was played by Kelly, an older white actor, which lent the part a certain urgent pathos: Not only does he look like he could (and maybe should) die at any time, but he's squandered the decades he's had to prepare, so every moment he has left is critical. And though I tired before too long of his monotonic line deliveries (which are perhaps excusable if, as suggested, it was the first time he'd taken on the role), his portrayal had a warm, avuncular cuddliness about it that put you squarely in his corner even as he was scorned and rejected by the likes of Stuff (physical possessions), Friendship, Kinship, and Cousinship.

But such efforts are not enough without the anchoring influence of a final goal to Everybody's travails. There are plenty of pace-stalling detours—the 100-minute running time is repeatedly interjected by voiceover discussions, conducted in total darkness (the otherwise sensitive lighting designer is Matt Frey) on theme-adjacent topics that function, at most, as "in-one" diversions, and a final sequence introduces a few key new characters, but doesn't make them essential, only acts as further stumbling block. True, we do eventually reach the endpoint, but it's perfunctory at a time the action should be at its most exultant. The scenic design (by Laura Jellinek), which wrenches the auditorium onstage in the form of a row of seats, but we need unity less than we need separation: If This and That truly are equivalent, does the play, life, or anything else actually matter?

Because Jacobs-Jenkins can't satisfactorily address that question within this structure, Everybody doesn't do much more but crumble in slow motion. Burke does everything she can to hold it together, with screamingly funny turns at the beginning and the end that suggest the full mystery of one of the universe's most unknowable forces. We want to understand Death, to embrace it, to unpack it and understand it. On some level, that's the way many of us approach our finality, so it makes sense here, but when you're not focusing on how to make your experience better because Death is reminding you of how great it already is, the message that comes through doesn't remotely seem like one anyone would want to send.

Through March 12
The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: