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Off Broadway Review: ‘Everybody’ by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Variety logo Variety 2/22/2017 Marilyn Stasio
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The playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins (“Gloria,” “An Octoroon”) must be concerned about the state of our immortal souls, because his new work, “Everybody” — now premiering at Off Broadway’s Signature Theater — is based on a medieval morality play that instructs sinners on how to repent and seek redemption. Something is inevitably lost in adapting the material for a modern audience that has outgrown its fear and awe of hellfire and damnation. But the story retains some power on a human level, and Jacobs-Jenkins plays up the randomness of death and the universality of the human condition by casting most of the major roles in this show by lottery at each performance.

When Everybody (David Patrick Kelly, by luck of the draw at one recent performance) protests his imminent death, he is given the option of taking a friend along for company. To his dismay, he discovers that no one with whom he spent the days and nights of his life — not Beauty (Brooke Bloom) or Friendship (Lakisha Michelle May) or even all the Stuff (Louis Cancelmi) he acquired over the course of his lifetime — is willing to accompany him in death.

Jocelyn Bioh makes a fetching God in this re-tooled educational drama, but she’s no match for Marylouise Burke’s adorable Death. (“I’m Death, who fears no man,” she trills in that birdlike voice of hers.) Their battle for the soul of Everybody is the heart of Jacobs-Jenkins’s adaptation of this medieval morality play that entertained and terrified true believers in the town square on holy days and feast days.

Director Lila Neugebauer stops short of making this an audience-participation event, as it was in the 15th century, when plays were as much teaching tools as entertainment, but she does try to inject a bit of drama into his repetitive quest by seating these candidates among the audience. Except for a dramatic appearance by two giant skeletons working the side aisles of the house, no serious attempt has been made to adapt medieval theatrical conventions for modern times — although God herself knows that we mortals are just as selfish and greedy as our medieval ancestors.

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