The theater has been reconfigured to have the seats on four sides at Barrow Street creating a living room-like ambiance so that Donahoe is quite close to the audience and moves among them during the performance. As narrator, he tells the story of a seven-year-old boy who has to deal with his mother’s suicide attempt. Trying to cheer her up, he begins “A list of everything brilliant about the world. Everything worth living for.” His list begins with ice cream, water fights, staying up past your bedtime, being allowed to watch TV, the color yellow, things with stripes, etc. When she attempts suicide ten years later, he continues the list but this time also leaves Post-It notes around the house and messages on the answering machine.
While he finishes high school, the list has reached 1,000 brilliant things. Later at University, just at the same time he is asked to read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, the famous 18th century novel which led to many suicides, he falls in love with a girl Sam he meets in the library and they begin to exchange books. When he accidentally lends her a book that has the list in it, she returns it having added to it. The list then becomes widely known and other people ask to read and add to it. The narrator finds that at each stage of life, there are new items to add. Eventually the list reaches the astronomical number of one million and he discovers that it has redemptive powers for other people.
Aside from being very entertaining and humorous, Every Brilliant Thing is a new kind of storytelling. Before the show, Donahoe mingles with the audience and gives out samples of the list so that when he calls out a number, a chosen member responses with the information. He also picks audience members to play the other characters, his father, his vet, his school teacher, his girlfriend. Sometimes he feeds them lines, other times he lets them ad lib. At the performance under review, the chosen actors threw themselves into their roles taking their cue from Donahoe. As Donahoe wanders around during the performance, he makes eye contact and personalizes the show, making the audience a part of the event. George Perrin’s subtle direction made it seems as though the evening were completely spontaneous.
Every Brilliant Thing is a wonderful evening in the theater and a reminder that though life may offer bad or unhappy episodes, that there are wonderful things to live for and new surprises every day. Making his New York debut, Jonny Donahoe proves himself to be a charismatic performer and makes this a memorable and inventive show. At 65 minutes, the show is just the right length to make its point without overstaying its welcome.
Every Brilliant Thing (through March 29, 2015)
Originating theatre: Paines Plough & Pentabus Theatre Company, UK
Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Street at Seventh Avenue South, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-243-6262 or visit http://www.everybrilliantthingplay.com
Running time: 65 minutes without an intermission
Charming one-man show with audience participation which reminds us why life is worth living.