Stephen Brown’s Everything Is Super Great is a small, unpretentious play about an American family in crisis. That is not a novel theme, of course, but Everything rises gracefully to the occasion. Brown demonstrates his considerable skill for creating characters you can latch onto and root for. Director Sarah Norris—along with a gifted quartet of actors—has gently and thoughtfully taken Brown’s story up a notch, finding colors that may not have been evident on the page but that augment the script nicely. The resulting production is a lovely thing to behold.
The center of the story is Tommy (played by Will Sarratt), a teenager whose prospects for a happy future have been blocked by traumatic family events. The story begins about six months after Tommy’s older brother, a college student, has gone missing. The stress brought on by this tragedy—or assumed tragedy—has scrambled the day-to-day life of Tommy and his mother Anne (Marcia DeBonis). The customary factors that prompt screaming matches between parent and adolescent are magnified because of the strain surrounding the brother’s disappearance. An incident at an Applebee’s, where Tommy worked, has left him facing mandated anger-management sessions. Tommy’s rejection of his mother’s attempts to help him would be tough but tolerable for a parent in normal circumstances, but for Anne—who seems in danger of melting into tears at every turn—it is distilled cruelty.
Oh, and by the way: the scenario plays out during the holiday season. The world is rocking around the Christmas tree while all of this familial pain burns steadily in Tommy and Anne’s home.
The play’s other two characters have significant problems of their own. Alice (Lisa Jill Anderson), Tommy’s supervisor at his new job at Starbucks, is coping with a mother who may or may not have Alzheimer’s Disease. Dave (Xavier Rodney), formerly a coworker of Anne’s at Walmart, has become estranged from his girlfriend, who has taken off to parts unknown. Dave is also trying to launch a career as a social worker, dubiously relying on his MFA in theater to make it work.
There is much humor in the play, with the characters’ pathos never getting in the way of their ridiculousness. Take, for instance, Anne’s enthusiasm for whipping up baked goods, which consists of the microwaving of Pop-Tarts. The way the comedic and serious strands of the story are woven together so naturally and simply may, in fact, be the play’s greatest strength. Only one sequence seems lacking in this regard—a scene in which Dave (with Tommy’s help) leaves a voice-mail message for the estranged girlfriend. The sequence comes off as stage shtick rather than a plausible progression of actions.
The actors’ performances are excellent across the board. Sarratt is clearly older than the character he plays, but he projects well the teenage embarrassment that makes every other thing he hears elicit an amazed, indignant “Oh, my God!” More importantly, he gives us glimpses of Tommy’s deeper angst over his brother’s absence, too.
Rodney is especially adept at showing us the chipper attitude Dave adopts to get through life. He lets the character buzz along, but the suspicion that Dave fears he may be outed as a fraud always lurks just below the surface.
As Alice, Anderson is intriguing. When we first see her, her face seems drained of all affect and color and she appears to be intentionally ignoring the loquacious Tommy. We think Alice must be one of those bored, moody and superior-acting baristas. Then, gradually, we see that she is exhausted and emotionally distraught—and possibly always a little bit stoned. It’s hard to take your eyes away from her—unless, that is, she’s sharing a scene with DeBonis as Anne.
DeBonis gives a completely honest performance, without a shred of labored acting technique bleeding through. You’re not just watching an actor play a character who’s striving to stay afloat while in over her head. You’re seeing emotion that’s real, but never exactly raw—because DeBonis is firmly in control, every moment, whether she’s snorting (literally) with goofy laughter or wiping great waves of tears from her face. This may not be the best performance you’ll have seen on a stage in 2019, but it will assuredly be among the top four or five.
The show’s technical elements are a mixed bag. Brian Dudkiewicz’s scenic design consists of an odd unit set with impossibly high walls, including a shelf too far up for anyone to reach without a fireman’s ladder. Perhaps his design was meant to be more abstract than realistic. Lighting designer Elaine Wong helps us get our bearings from scene to scene by shining a spot on the Starbucks and Walmart logos on the walls. Mari Taylor’s costumes have sharp details that seem just right: Dave’s sorry-looking necktie, for instance, which appears to have been rescued from a bin full of 1970’s stuff that should have been thrown out in the 1980’s or the meant-to-be-festive clusters of coiled ribbons at the shoulders of Anne’s Christmas party getup.
That Christmas party scene toward the end of the play is one of Brown’s best sequences. There are echoes in it of the Gentleman Caller portions of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Like Williams’ matriarch Amanda Wingfield, Anne here tries too hard to make the evening perfect (which means There Will Be Pop-Tarts), and, like Tom Wingfield, Tommy seems to be waiting for everything to promptly fall apart.
Yet there’s more hope in this play than in Menagerie. Anne and Tommy may be at odds with one another, but it seems they are both natural-born help-givers. They share an abhorrence of unfairness, too, and they’re willing to take strong actions—even breaking the law—to strike against injustice.
In fact, feelings of love and affection are quite prevalent in Everything Is Super Great. What’s rarer is characters’ courage to express those feelings to those who most need to hear them. When that does happen, we sit up straight, pay attention and find ourselves moved.
Everything Is Super Great (through December 14, 2019)
New Light Theater Project, in association with Stable Cable Lab Co.
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-892-7999 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission