Review: British Import May Be the Original “It Gets Better” Project

No. 1654: "Christopher Walken’s voice"; No. 1655: "Christopher Walken’s hair" ...

Theatergoers settling in for "Every Brilliant Thing" may be approached at their seats by kinetic British comedian Jonny Donahoe brandishing a piece of paper -- which he’ll then stuff into your hands. "When I call your number during the show," Donahoe will implore, "could I ask you to just please read aloud what it says there?"

With this fellow’s encouraging grin, you wouldn’t dream of saying no, even without any context for the odd words on the page: "Christopher Walken’s voice"? What you’ve signed on for, it turns out, is participation in an interactive tale well-suited to the short and gloomy days of winter, and evoking just a touch of "It's a Wonderful Life."

Duncan Macmillan’s one-man dark comedy has percolated in various small British theaters for nearly a decade and is now receiving its North American premiere in the round at the Barrow Street Theatre. A good half the audience at the 100-seat venue is pressed into service as narrator Donahoe relates a story of a young man trying to ease his mother’s depression.

The boy, age 7 as the story begins, may not be able to control his mother’s behavior, but he can remind her of everything in life worth living for -- that is, every brilliant thing -- and so he begins a list, intended for her: "1. Ice cream. 2. Water fights. 3. Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV."

As the boy matures into a teen, his mother’s erratic behavior continues, but so too does the list grow. Some audience members are asked to read items aloud. Others are called on for more intricate duties. At a recent performance, Donahoe persuaded a middle-aged woman to remove her socks, turning her into a school counselor who uses a sock puppet to encourage students to share feelings.

Still other theatergoers become a town vet, the narrator’s father and his college girlfriend.

The success of "Every Brilliant Thing" hinges on the ability of a roomful of strangers to drop their collective guard and trust Donahoe, the leading player. This charismatic comic has no trouble getting people on his side, fast.

At 60 minutes, Macmillan’s story (directed here, as in the United Kingdom, by George Perrin) avoids getting preachy, though it is slight -- the action shifts at high speed from the narrator’s meet-cute with his eventual wife in the college library, to their split, years later, because of his own battles with depression. We’re not, so much, here for the plot.

What Macmillan and Donahoe have constructed is a participatory theatrical experience that works because everyone feels secure. There’s a second element at play, too: because you’re never quite sure when the time will come for your cue, you’re that much more invested in hanging on every word. Who wants to miss their line in front of a crowd?

The tangible result is that you listen just as carefully as the narrator surely wishes his mother would, and as the hour winds down, you’re thinking of a few things you find "brilliant," yourself -- if blank paper had been distributed at curtain call, I would've added: "The way the chairs in some old New York theaters rumble whenever a subway passes by underneath."

The point, of course, is to leave us counting our own blessings. Donahoe excels at making us do just that. In that sense, "Every Brilliant Thing" is a theater lover’s perfect stocking stuffer.

"Every Brilliant Thing," runs through March 29 at the Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St. Tickets: $55-$75. Call 212-868-4444.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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