EVERY BRILLIANT THING
The Lion and Every Brilliant Thing are variations on a theme. Each features a performer in his mid 30s or thereabouts, telling the story of how a family tragedy informed the trajectory of his life and sent him into an emotional tailspin; and what happened, or what he made happen, to pull himself out of it. Each one is flawed, but each is also so bracingly original in approach and so deftly delivered that the overriding impression is of having witnessed something theatrically unique, and exciting enough to have been worthwhile despite anything else that may figure into an appraisal.
The Lion is singer-songwriter Benjamin Scheuer’s autobiographical rite-of-passage story as a one man musical. He performs a number of songs—music and lyrics all by him—and accompanies himself on a number of guitars. In all aspects of musical performance, and as an actor of his own tale, he’s virtuosic. And the songs are very attractive and often far better than that. They don’t offer too much in the way of musical theatre niceties like subtext or consistently perfect rhyme, but you quickly make peace with The Lion not needing to fit into a traditional box and allowing it its pop music vocabulary. The triggering agent of the tale is Benjamin’s father; seemingly a gentle and loving man who introduced him to music in the first place; and then inexplicably turned mean and died before a stung and furious Benjamin could get over his anger enough to resolve things with him. The rest of the story chronicles the effect of this directly and indirectly on his health, his mental stability and a key romantic relationship.
Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan gives every appearance of being autobiographical, and watching it, I thought it was (I had so much to see that I attended it “cold”, not remembering anything I’d read about it). I daresay many (most?) people in the audience may feel the same, because it seems astonishingly credible as a personal account. Its sole performer, a pudgy British comedian named Jonny Donahoe (who assisted in the writing, or perhaps gets the “with” credit because a good deal of the presentation has to be extemporaneous and off-text), tells the tale of “himself” as a young boy having a suicidal mother, trying to coax her into happiness by maintaining an ongoing list of all the wonderful things in life—as the Brits would say, the brilliant things. It’s a list he continues keeping well into adulthood, that gets stalled only when he himself hits depression. Part of the magic of the play’s construction, and Donahoe’s delivery of it, is that audience interaction is not only a part of it, but a crucial element. Even more, Donahoe solicits audience members to not only read aloud entries from the growing list (from little papers he passes around while working the crowd, pre-show), but to play characters in the narrative without scripting. He gives them the general rules of the scene, or shape of the character, and they improvise with him, falling right into the spirit of the moment, with game abandon and often astonishing verisimilitude.
The flaws, not fatal, are these:
The Lion is never quite as moving as you want it to be, though it’s always engaging. Mr. Scheuer’s story is, in large measure, one about a self-involved guy learning at length to get out of his own way. That self-involvement keeps a certain amount of sympathy at bay (though only a certain amount; he’s a charming enough performer to elicit some). So the brilliance of the performance triumphs somewhat over the content, though both are of course intertwined.
Where Every Brilliant Thing falls a bit short is in not thoroughly enough particularizing the causal connection between a mother’s suicidal tendency and a son’s impulse to emulate a similar kind of self-destructiveness late in life, after having been so positive for so long; since, obviously, the point of the story is to show how a driven soul can pull himself out of the emotional mire. With Donahoe being so personable, you just ride the wave toward catharsis—and there is one, and it’s rather touching along the way, much more, I think, than The Lion, because it’s more generous of spirit. But it’s as if a key ingredient of the story is left to abstract impression. Not that we always cleanly understand our own psyches, but—especially because Every Brilliant Thing really is a play that’s only disguised as a true reminiscence—there seems to be the promise of just that little bit more, and it remains unfulfilled.
Still…all of that is negligible up against the freshness of energy, personae and vocabulary each show shares with you; and it does feel very much like a sharing. And I can’t recommend them highly enough.
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