Before the play “Every Brilliant Thing” began, Liz Callaway walked across the stage, handing pieces of paper to people in the audience. Each piece of paper audience members received had a number, ranging from one to one million. Numerically, each number was called and in an unusual twist, audience members were asked to play a small part of a darkly humorous drama that tackles the harsh realities of life in a surprisingly funny and uplifting way.
At first glance, the audience might view “Every Brilliant Thing,” which was directed by Dan Foster and written by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe, as a one-woman show. But its heavy audience participation through impromptu roleplaying provides a completely immersive and gripping event for its audience, making “Every Brilliant Thing” more of an experience than a show.
The recipient of a Tony nomination (for Baby, 1984) and an Emmy Award (for hosting “Ready to Go,” 1987–1991), Broadway actress Liz Callaway plays an unnamed narrator and seamlessly blends together scripted dialogue and improvisations with unsuspecting audience members to create a journey-like experience. Because the play’s script is flexible, I never knew what was coming next, leaving me fully invested in every word narrated by Callaway.
The stage at TheatreSquared is set up, for the first time, surrounding the small stage in a square formation in order to make it easier for audience participation.
Normally, the stage is front and center with the audience surrounding the sides and middle, but this arrangement allowed for a more intimate and personal experience. It seemed odd at first to have nothing more than a stool on stage with a few small items brought in later on, but the performance was so dynamic that it didn’t need props. The transportive tone of Callaway’s voice allowed the audience to vividly imagine scenery even where there isn’t any.
The sound design was key in this play. In between narrations and small reenactments of scenes from her life, jazz and blues songs would fill the room, which Callaway would authentically react to, dancing and feeling the beat without choreography, making it feel enthralling.
Once the performance started, between retrospectively sharing intimate and heart-wrenching stories about the character’s life, Callaway would yell out a number, in which the keeper of the card would respond with one of the “brilliant things.” The list starts when the narrator is seven years old and continues throughout her adulthood, and the “brilliant things” range from the narrator’s love of ice cream to her fascination and admiration for vinyl records.
While the list of feel-good things carries an uplifting vibe throughout the play, the topics and stories discussed through a combination of narration and improv-acting with the audience, take on a more serious tone.
The topic of suicide is a main component of the play. Starting at a young age, the narrator talks about her mother’s attempts and eventual suicide and how it affected her later on. She tacklesmental health with levity but hones in on how somber and awful it is, as well.
Being able to balance humor and darkness is a difficult task, but the show does it with outstanding grace and depth.
Throughout the experience, Callaway would choose people to play characters like her father, first boyfriend, school counselor and college professor. The audience’s ad-lib performances, which were completely spontaneous, added to the sincerity of the play by making it seem all the more realistic.
One of the most profound moments of the performance was when the narrator paused, addressing the audience and said, “I have some advice for anyone who’s contemplated suicide. Don’t do it, it gets better.”
This play is worth buying tickets for, simply said. It’s an unforgettable, humbling and inspiring work of art that will leave people motivated to make lists of brilliant things of their own.
Robert Ford, the artistic director at TheatreSquared described the play as, “deep, gentle, human and funny,” he said. When Ford saw “Every Brilliant Thing” was available he had to grab it because of the message it had, he said.
“Every Brilliant Thing” will run through Feb. 10 at TheatreSquared. Tickets will cost $36-$47 for regular viewers and $10-$28 for viewers under 30 depending on seating options.