The Brits overuse the word brilliant the way Americans overuse the word awesome, diluting its impact and meaning. But Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe’s Every Brilliant Thing is bloody brilliant and absolutely awesome, in every majestic sense of the hyperbolic words. It’s billed as a one-man show, but it’s an immersive experience in which dozens of ticket holders get to participate either from their seats or onstage with Donahoe at the Barrow Street Theatre, a small, square space with the audience arranged on all four sides. Donahoe, a British stand-up comic and leader of the musical comedy act Jonny and the Baptists, is so good, so natural in the role of a man sharing the vivid, poignant details of having grown up with a suicidal mother that it’s hard to believe it’s not his own true story, but it is indeed a fictional work written by playwright Macmillan (The Forbidden Zone, Monster) based on his short story “Sleeve Notes,” a monologue he wrote for an actress who appeared in his first play. (Donahoe gets a smaller-font cowriting credit for what he brings to the production, which has been performed previously by other actors both male and female.) The lights remain up throughout the sixty-five-minute show, giving it even more of an involving, conversational feel. The story Donahoe, the narrator, tells is bittersweet and heartbreaking, beginning when he’s seven, the year his mother first tries to kill herself. Immediately afterward, he starts keeping “a list of everything brilliant about the world. Everything worth living for.” The list begins with “ice cream” and “water fights,” and as the narrator grows up, the items on the list grow up with him, often becoming more mature and poetic (“the smell of old books,” “old people holding hands”). The list also plays the central role in his relationship with Sam, leading to one of the most tender and heartwarming courtships you’ll ever see onstage; I nearly broke down in tears not only while watching the beautifully staged scene but also when reading it in the script the next day. Through it all, Macmillan and Donahoe explore the fragile nature of depression and suicide, from how families deal with mental illness to the hyper-controlled way it’s depicted in the media. “If you live a long life and get to the end of it without ever once feeling crushingly depressed, then you probably haven’t been paying attention,” the narrator says.
It’s impossible not to pay attention to Donahoe, who gives a dazzling performance as the narrator. Directed by George Perrin (Good with People, Macmillan’s Lungs), the Paines Plough production has an old-fashioned, home-made sensibility that matches the narrator’s handwritten list. The narrator speaks eloquently about his love of vinyl records, the latter being number 2,006 on the ever-growing list: “I’m not being pretentious, the sound quality is better,” he says. “It isn’t compressed and it’s tactile, you feel the weight of it in your hands. You can’t skip like with CDs or mp3s, you listen through to the entire album. Dad’s room had records on every surface and I loved the gatefold sleeves, the artwork, I love reading through the acknowledgments and the sleeve notes, the story of the making of the object.” Books also play a major role; when the narrator selects someone from the audience to play one of his professors, he has him or her hold aloft a copy of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, a book he explains “resulted in thousands of copycat suicides.” Later he reminds people that “there was a world in which you couldn’t communicate with anyone after midnight. No mobile phones or social media. That world was called ‘1998.’” The heart of the show is the relationship between the narrator and a fellow student he meets in college, Sam, who was played when I saw it by a lovely young woman who really made the role her own, making a powerful connection with Donahoe that struck deep. And that’s what Every Brilliant Thing is essentially about: making connections, both in life and in theater, being part of something that is bigger than yourself. It’s tragedy and comedy of the highest order, an unforgettable experience that just might lead to your jotting down some of the things that make your life worth living. And the first one is very likely to be: Every Brilliant Thing.