“Every Brilliant Thing,” continuing at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater through Oct. 15, explores the effects of a mother’s suicide attempts on her son from childhood to adulthood—but in a playful, audience-interactive way.
Originally written and performed by Duncan Macmillan as a monologue in London, “Every Brilliant Thing” was developed into a play in 2013, co-written by Jonny Donahoe. The current Geffen production tweaks the play to fit a Los Angeles context and Korean-American identity of solo performer Daniel K. Isaac.
Audience members sit in a round, visible to each other, under a cozy canopy composed of 200 quilts (designed by Sibyl Wickersheimer, procured by prop master Rick Gilles from second-hand sources), genially greeted by Isaac before the show begins.
He asks nearly everyone to choose a numbered statement from a list to read aloud during the performance. Some audience members, particularly those in the front rows and aisles, are also asked to perform as various people in his life – his father, school counselor, literature professor, family vet.
As he narrates, the eminently likeable and spry Isaac moves fluidly around the stage in casual denim (costumed by Samantha C. Jones), interacting with audience members in funny yet kind ways. Every performance is slightly different depending on the audience and how Isaac bounces material off of them.
His story begins with his mother’s first suicide attempt when he was seven. He relates how he began writing a list of “every brilliant thing” he could think of to encourage her to stay in the land of the living.
Audience members recite some of those items as he randomly calls out numbers (“Number 1" – "Ice cream”). Each item on the list gives the audience a little spark of recognition and warm feeling when they hear it, from the simple "sunlight" to the more complex "laughing so hard you shoot milk out your nose."
The list grows over the years as Isaac enacts (with the help of game audience members whom he subtly coaches) moments like going to college, falling in love, getting married—and finally getting the therapy he may have needed all the time.
The story is poignant, but the rub is that it’s not his; it’s original writer Macmillan’s. That shouldn’t make a difference since Isaac is acting the part in a theatre. But perhaps because it’s narrated in first person and the audience is asked to participate, it can feel somewhat disingenuous at times rather than cathartic.
When Isaac tells the audience that if someone is considering suicide, don’t do it because things get better, it’s well-meaning but not quite believable. When the audience suddenly becomes his therapy group toward the end, the energy in the room deflates a bit. We are no longer participating in shared catharsis but instead contributing only to his therapy.
This is not necessarily Isaac’s fault—as directed by Colm Summers, the actor’s childlike joy is infectious—rather, the structure of the play seems a little misguided. The conceit of the list is clever, but seems to become an ever-growing ladder of not-necessarily-felt words the narrator climbs to avoid falling into the pit of depression himself.
His mother doesn’t seem to respond to his list at all; in fact, he doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with her. So we don’t really feel the pain of her periodic suicide attempts except in our sympathy for Isaac in having to experience them.
His father is portrayed as distant and reticent, but at least they interact in lukewarm ways during car rides and a shared love of vinyl records, reading their sleeves' liner notes. Music itself, in the form of jazz, soul and pop compositions (curated by production assistant Dani Jaramillo), adds a welcome auditory dimension that expands the stage, but doesn’t always compensate for the lack of emotional connection.
There are moments where emotion does become palpable, such as Isaac describing falling in love for the first time in college. We feel what it’s like to be him, recognizing what he means when he says that the words of pop songs suddenly made sense.
Another particularly well-drawn scene has Isaac playing piano and singing in the kitchen with his parents and the girlfriend he brings home for the first time. One can visualize and feel the excitement, delight, and glow of the moment.
Unfortunately, the pain inherent during other key moments doesn’t come across the same way in that we can’t relate to the feeling. Even when Isaac races around the stage at one point to high-five everyone, we get the sense that the potentially connective action is more for him than us, especially since he leaves a few hanging.
In a sense, “Every Brilliant Thing” is reminiscent of Vinny DePonto’s magic show “Mindplay” performed at the Geffen last year. Performers in both productions interact with the audience in engaging ways. But they ultimately insinuate therapeutic purposes that feel imposed on audience members rather than inspiring catharsis within them.
The play does offer an understanding of suicide—including the “Werther effect” that causes suicides to spike, and how there are guidelines for media to follow when reporting on suicide—and suicide prevention information is responsibly distributed in the lobby and playbill.
But you’ll want to go see “Every Brilliant Thing” more for the pleasure of interacting with an affable performer and enjoying audience members helping to tell the story. You may also relish the heartfelt moments sparked by the list and appreciate the importance of the message—even if the story’s painful moments are not quite as emotionally evocative (number 6,472: unused tissues).
“Every Brilliant Thing” continues at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles, through Oct. 29 (extended), with shows Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets range from $39 to $129 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (310) 208-2028 or visiting GeffenPlayhouse.org. Run time is 70 minutes without intermission.