Meaning

David Mamet’s ‘The Penitent’ and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s ‘Everybody’: So, This Is How We Will Die

In David Mamet’s The Penitent a doctor faces charges of homophobia. In Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s latest play, a figure called Everybody confronts their mortality, discovering what they can best live (and die) with and without.

Doug Hamilton

The arresting magic of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s play Everybody is there, right at the start as Jocelyn Bioh, playing an usher, gives the most brilliant, smiling but firm but eye-rolling instructions to the audience on how to conduct themselves.

It’s all the usual turn off your phones, and unwrap your candy wrappers announcement, but with added bite. We learn that this play, directed by Lila Neugebauer for Signature Theatre, is a modern riff on the 15th-century morality play Everyman, which will follow “Everybody” as they journey toward death.

Bioh suddenly becomes a very unhappy God, annoyed that we—everybody in the audience—is laughing at her. Death—a dry, slightly impatient and scatterbrained Marylouise Burke—arrives to find a soul to shepherd someone to the hereafter. Every person in the show plays a concept.

Little do we know that five people called “everybody” have concealed themselves among us in the audience, and Death wants “Everybody” to make an account for their lives.

Via a lottery, one of five actors is selected to be “Everybody” for the night. The night I saw it, this was Brooke Bloom, and on her journey to death, she was joined at various points by other actors representing Friendship, Kinship, Stuff, and, finally, Love.

There are a set of simple seats for Everybody’s encounters with these mainstays of her life, and after the end of each small chapter we eavesdrop in the dark on conversations between all kinds of everybody, which orbit around what we can and can’t say to each other, and how discourse itself can be so problematic today.

“Everybody” is us, or any one of us, and so when Bloom was discussing with Friendship (David Patrick Kelly, excellent—weaving this way and that, places to be and all that) if Friendship would accompany her to death, Jacobs-Jenkins, with both ribald wit and sensitivity, shows how nourishing friendship can be to us, but also, at its final count, how limiting. And fickle.

The same thing happens with Kinship, which turns out to be two cousins stoking a barbecue: again, they are perfectly nice, but not willing to do as much as they should.

Stuff (dressed in a distractingly shiny dress by Lakisha Michelle May) is precisely as her clothing suggests: a temptation and a distraction. “Everybody” cannot believe they have invested so much time and money accumulating stuff, and now to receive so little in return.

Love, itself angry at being annoyed the whole play, almost leaves before addressing “Everybody,” but eventually “Love”—and it’s of the especially tough kind—teaches “Everybody” of its own limitations but also its endurance.

The company plays a more personal set of characteristics as Jacobs-Jenkins takes “Everybody” to the edge of losing her/our life (this feels very Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz bidding farewell to the Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man), with a surprise final entrance—a huge downer, but a very realistic one.

What the acclaimed Jacobs-Jenkins, a MacArthur fellow in 2016, evokes in his excellent play is the both meaningful and absurd trajectory of life, what we take seriously, and what we should take more seriously—and, when all is said and done, how meaningless much of what we accumulate and strive for, is.

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We are all fundamentally alone on our journeys, says Everybody, and at the end of life the only things we do not take with us are Understanding (Jocelyn Bioh) and Time (the young Lilyana Tiare Cornell, who greets Death as an old friend). Bioh bids us farewell as she had greeted us, and with a plea to ourselves to understand ourselves and others more. It may not be enough, but what else is there?

It was strange to see Everybody, which pulsates with so much enquiry, just a day after seeing David Mamet’s The Penitent, directed by Neil Pepe for the Atlantic Theater, which affects to ask a similar range of big questions, but more glancingly and much more stiltedly.

Charles (Chris Bauer) is facing a career backlash after, he claims, being misquoted by a journalist as saying that homosexuality is an abomination rather than—as he claims he said, and insists he believes—an adaptation; an adaptation of what exactly the play swerves around addressing.

His confused wife Kath (Rebecca Pidgeon who is married to Mamet, a co-founder of the Atlantic) interrogates him, as does his lawyer Richard (Jordan Lage). The confusion is rooted in Charles’s treatment of a disturbed young man.

The play becomes a slightly exhausting slicing of a very small piece of ham, its characters not really sounding like anyone in reality actually sounds, particularly Pidgeon who speaks in the same detached monotone whatever she is saying.

The actors do their best with a script that offers them an unforgiving series of walled exits and mazes around the meaning and complexity of language, freedom of expression, personal and religious morality, and buried guilt—which supplies a final twist.

Over the play’s 90-minute duration, Charles’s options become fewer and fewer, but the play fails to set light beneath the kindling it initially sets—around homosexuality and homophobia, the cultural faultlines around modern language and modern mores—and I am still scratching my head over the depressing fate of Kath.

Only Lawrence Gilliard Jr. manages to fully engage us, playing a lawyer whose passionate and pointed questioning of Charles finally yields both answers, and vocalizes the contradictions that we too have been puzzling over.

Mamet’s central character is a trapped, misunderstood man, yet you don’t feel much inclination to be on his side.

Perhaps that’s the point—he is at least not overtly the penitent of the play’s title—although the play feels too in conflict with itself to make it clearly.

Everybody is at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, NYC, until March 19. Book tickets here. The Penitent is at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, NYC, until March 26. Book tickets here.