‘The Comeuppance’ Review: a Bigger, Chillier Big Chill

School reunions, like work and family reunions, are fertile ground for playwrights, providing an excuse to bring together disparate characters with a ready-made catalog of conflicts. (There will always be people who have been dumped, disrespected, or disowned. X Add alcohol or cannabis to bring back old feelings and loosen your tongue, then compress your timeline for a weekend or just one night and let the rest rest.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins describes all these elements as “come up‘ opens at Signature Theaters on Monday. But if he was simply updating the formula for “The Big Chill” – Ready for the 40th Alumni Reunion — This world premiere, directed by Eric Ting, could have been nothing more than sentimental and entertaining. Instead, evoking the endless violence and disaster that disrupted the lives of characters whose 1999 Columbine massacre and his September 11th attacks were textbook textbooks for high school students, this work will bring the world to life. It can also be a profound tragicomedy about , or vice versa. The reunion that awaits us all.

Here, the boundary between this world and another world is ambiguous. Death appears just five seconds after the human begins to act at the beginning of the play. Or really psycho pump, known in many cultures, is a folklore entity that gathers the souls of the recently deceased and guides them to the afterlife. Jacobs-Jenkins portrays him as a sarcastic, friendly person who occasionally takes over the bodies of other characters to explain what is going on beneath their cries. (I say “him” because his first inhabited body is male.) The rest of the time, he wants to get to know his customers before buying a farm. , invisibly monitor and wait while playing long or short games.

It’s a strange feeling to stand by death’s side, but we also want to know about these people. They were graduates of St. Anthony’s School, a Catholic school in Washington, and gathered on the porch of their suburban home for their 20th reunion. Each has struggled to achieve maturity, happiness, or simply a sense of belonging. This problem was already apparent during high school when they bonded as members of MERGE, a “multi-ethnic rejection group” with a problematic extra-E.

Perhaps the problematic E is an abbreviation for Emilio (Kaleb Eberhardt), a Berlin-based artist who was “bored with realism” and now makes what are called sound sculptures. Clearly the most successful of the group, he returned to the United States not to attend his reunion but to see his work at the Whitney Biennale, but nevertheless he was the most I am deeply disappointed. And most disappointing is that he is unsympathetic, both literally (the troubles of others annoy him) and broadly (he is unlikable).

I don’t know if Mr. Jacobs Jenkins intended that. In a play that lasts 2 hours and 10 minutes without a break, it’s a bit of a mistake for one character to spend a long time snorting after another. He despises Ursula (Brittany Bradford) on the porch, who is blind in one eye due to diabetes. He continues to look for trouble with Caitlin (Susannah Flood), but he sees her marriage to an older man whose politics are bad as a continuation of her bad choices in high school. . But even as Ursula and Caitlin try to avoid conflict, Christina (Shannon Tio), an anesthesiologist with five children and a drinking problem, never does.

As a clever trick, the other two characters (the one who arrives unexpectedly and the one who doesn’t arrive unexpectedly) are both played by Bobby Moreno. There’s a lot to keep track of, but one of the play’s despicable outcomes is that the more we learn about the group and its history, the less grip we have on the truth. No one’s memory matches anyone else’s memory. Even what seems to be a basic fact (someone is gay, someone isn’t) is controversial. This creates a good deal of humor, and Jacobs-Jenkins listens to 38-year-olds (like him), but renders them perfectly, and Ting’s ferocious brilliance that never misses a detail. Staging maximizes amplification.

Rather than being overpowered by humor, it’s the enigma of great writing and excellent acting that enhances the underlying pathos. An eruption can cause extensive damage. Christina’s brash talent (she’s a veteran) eventually gives way to a ferocious cry of regret under the influence of jungle juice, which Taio turns into a gorgeous aria. In Flood’s brilliant performance, the snappy but vulnerable Caitlin is someone who “thinks of the old days” despite knowing for sure that it will only cause heartache. intentionally kiss Emilio, a bee trapped in its own pot of misfortune, finally goes too far. He stabs and pays for it. Only Ursula, who is half-blind, sees others with some clarity or compassion.

What she sees is that they have reached a time of reversal, “the age of poor choice for consequences.” Death is beginning to manifest itself to them in the form of burnout, hypertension, and other illnesses. But in truth, death was always lurking. “Columbine, 9/11, wars, wars, wars without end,” says one of the characters, “then Trump, then Corona”—and it went on and on. In some cases, as Catholics, artists, and patriots, those who have tried to live their lives according to their values ​​are finally learning that they are not a talisman against misfortune.

In that sense, ‘The Comeuppance’ is a great companion to Will Arbery’s ‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning’, another dark night reunion of souls. Ursula’s front porch (designed by Arnulfo Maldonado) is a more cheerful reminder of the stark back porch of the play, with ferns and wind chimes, shrubs and strange noises. Until death begins to narrow, speaking in a more merry, altered voice as if echoing itself. After that, lighting (by Amit Chandrashaker), sound (by Palmer Hefferan) and terrifying effects (magical by Skylar Fox) provide. A reminder of what is at stake.

For me, this is a familiar or equally painful memory. In fact, much of it leaves its mark here, as Jacobs-Jenkins puts it more subtly than his earlier plays. from “OctorunYou may notice the meta-theater audacity. from “appropriate”, a reunion setting. from “everyone(summary of the medieval moral drama Everyman), the desire to outsmart death. And from all too real violence,Gloria”, the violence of the horse play here.

Combined and evolved, The Comeuppance is a richer, more fully mature work. Possibly even better on the margins. Some plot points that I believe we have to figure out are tangled in the undergrowth of the backhand. And I wish Ursula, played so charmingly by Bradford, had more to do in most of the play than explain why she refuses to attend her reunion.

But even that is rewarded by a beautiful final scene and a brilliant final gesture. No spoilers, but this involves him in one of Emilio’s sound sculptures and the gradual deafness that all humans suffer from. Yes, death will come to all of us at some point, but it makes you shudder to realize that it is being taken from us every day in the meantime.

come up
Until June 25th at the Signature Theater in Manhattan. signature theater.org. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.

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