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Review: ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ at the Geffen Playhouse counts the joys that make life livable

Daniel K. Isaac in "Every Brilliant Thing" at Geffen Playhouse.
(Isaak Berliner)
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“Every Brilliant Thing,” a clever, interactive solo performance piece by British theater artists Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, counts the joys that make life livable.

Ice cream, water fights, the color yellow, to name three that appear at the top of the narrator’s list. These items are read by audience members at the request of Daniel K. Isaac (“Billions”), the affable performer who has randomly assigned theatergoers slips of paper with itemized pleasures written on them in advance of the show, which opened Thursday at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater.

List numbers are called out and civilian spectators are expected to promptly supply their item. No. 6: Roller coasters. No. 24: Spaghetti and meatballs. No. 25: Wearing a cape.

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The list grows beyond the initial goal of 1,000 things. This exercise isn’t an idle one for the narrator. His project begins when he’s 7 years old, after his mother’s suicide attempt. It’s the first of several attempts that mark his life as indelibly as such happy landmarks as his first serious kiss and high school graduation.

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

The scene is enacted with a careful balance of poignancy and humor. The awkwardness of a nonprofessional coming onto the stage to perform the death-administering role is inherently funny. But the heartbreak of pet loss is one that most people can readily identify with.

Another audience member is conscripted to play the narrator’s father, a taciturn man whose moods are communicated by the selection of jazz records he plays alone in his study. A tough paternal task awaits him: He must try to communicate to his young son the reason his mother is in the hospital.

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

Comprehension will have to wait but coping cannot be postponed. Hence the idea of the list, a gift to his mother and to himself. Both need to be reminded of the everyday delights around them.

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The boy wants his mother to stick around. But he also doesn’t want to fall into the same pit of despair. Suicide isn’t a solitary matter. “It’s common for the children of suicides to blame themselves,” he explains. Did he fail his mother in any way, he can’t help wondering. 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 the Broad Stage‘s Edye in Santa Monica in 2017. The production starred Donahoe, the British comedian, writer and performer who helped adapt the piece with Macmillan (author of the wrenching play about addiction “People, Places & Things”) from Macmillan’s short story “Sleeve Notes.”

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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 found playful ways around the reserve of a culture that has difficulty addressing painful topics directly.

The Geffen Playhouse production, directed by Colm Summers, is at once more abstract and more emotionally forthcoming. Isaac’s smiling affability lends the piece a different tone than Donahoe’s bashful bloke demeanor. Where Isaac seems to relish making contact with the audience, Donahoe proceeded with a sheepish grin, as though recognizing the mutual embarrassment in a performance that wore its melancholy like a second skin.

I wondered if Isaac might have benefited from modifying the script more assertively to fit his own performance. “Every Brilliant Thing” has enormous flexibility but the universal pattern it traces is made more vivid by character-centered specificity.

The performance is nonetheless a delight, with Isaac bounding around the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, which has been reconfigured for the occasion into a circular group therapy arrangement with the audience. The set by Sibyl Wickersheimer is full of sunshiny touches suggesting the work of a child creating a magical space to ward off domestic sadness.

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

The audience plays a crucial role in determining the production’s success. 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 equally. The chuckling mood was all-forgiving but the playfulness sometimes felt like one-way traffic.

Isaac’s performance has an antic quality that over time reveals itself to be a defense against the depression that has been bequeathed to him. After a relationship (involving a game stand-in from the audience) crashes, he can no longer maintain the same frenetic pace. The low is made all the more real by the descent from a manic high.

The list in “Every Brilliant Thing” approaches a million items. Many of them are super quirky (“peeing in the ocean and nobody knows,” “inappropriate songs played at emotional moments”), but each reminds us of those glimmers of delight that are as much a part of our lives as our heaviest sorrows.

‘Every Brilliant Thing’

Where: Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 15

Tickets: $39-$129

Contact: (310) 208-2028 or www.geffenplayhouse.org

Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes (with no intermission)

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