Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ The Comeuppance, the culmination of his decade as a Premiere Resident playwright at Signature Theatre, does for the Millennials what The Big Chill did for the Baby Boomers. Astutely directed by Eric Ting, this fascinating but uneven play also reviews the stresses and traumas of the last 20 years for that generation. This five-character reunion of people who knew each other at St. Anthony, class of 2002, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, is densely plotted and packed with dramatic moments. And then there is a new wrinkle, an uninvited guest.
Although at first we don’t know who it is, speaking through the different characters, it turns out that Death is an unacknowledged character. While we don’t know why, Death speaking in a disembodied voice, one by one through the various people on Ursula’s porch pregaming (drinking, getting high, reliving old memories, etc.) their 20th high school reunion, the visitation is not only distracting, it seems like an intrusion. It is possibly meant to accompany the description of where they all are in their lives as “The Age of Bad Choices Seeking Their Consequences. The Comeuppance…” While the play does delineate the characters’ bad choices, since Death has arrived too soon, the appearances seem to interrupt the play each time.
Nevertheless, the other scenes in the play build to a shattering climax that sends four of the characters off to the 20th reunion at the local hotel. The meeting of people on the porch of Ursula’s house is of M.E.R.G.E., that is the Multi-Ethnic Reject Experience that at least four of them were members of as honor students in all the same classes. One member of M.E.R.G.E., Simon who is expected cancels at the last minute. Kristina bring along her cousin Paco, a former classmate and a former member of the U.S. Army wounded during one of his five tours of duty in Iran. However, as he was a year ahead of them, he was not a member of M.E.R.G.E., but he did date Caitlin who is very much present this evening and glad to see him after all these years. The real surprise of the evening is the appearance of Emilio, a rising soundscape artist who has lived in Berlin the last 15 years, and has come back to participate in the Whitney Biennial. Emilio dated Kristina back in their school days.
As they get drunk and high, old memories and unresolved issues come to the fore: the others have always thought that Emilio was gay as Kristina had revealed that they never had sex; however he has just had a child with Annika, his German girlfriend dissuading them of that theory. Although Caitlin claims to be happy with her marriage to the conservative ex-cop Cameron who brought two young children to their marriage, she seems to be covering up a deep disappointment. Kristina, a doctor who has been in the military and arrives in her uniform, is deeply unhappy with her distant husband Richard, her many children and her stressful job as an anesthesiologist. Paco has had medical problems since his accident in Iran and has been out of contact with the others in recent months. Ursula who has lost her grandmother recently has also gone blind in one eye and developed diabetes which appears to be getting worse.
Ultimately, it appears that Emilio is the most damaged of them all as he continually scratches at old wounds and memories the others would rather forget, saying he wants to understand what happened back in high school. His 15 years in Berlin are described as a voluntary exile. The unseen Simon is left to define the last two decades for all of them in a smart phone conversation which we are privy to: “Columbine, 9/11, the war, the war, the endless war, the Trump, then Covid, whatever is going on in the … Supreme Court… Roe v. Wade.” Their lives seem to have been shaped by the traumatic events of their time. By the end of the evening, we know the real lives of all five people at the pregame before the actual reunion and much has been said and gone on between them.
As directed by Ting, the actors create very individualized characters all representing different ways of life. Caleb Eberhardt’s Emilio who seems to remember everything is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. Susannah Flood’s Caitlin proves to be a peacemaker both with her friends and her family. Shannon Tyo’s Kristina, on her one night off in weeks, is almost hysterical as she gets drunk very quickly on Ursula’s jungle juice and lets off steam. Bobby Moreno’s Paco wants to be liked by everyone and return things to the way they were 20 years ago. Brittany Bradford’s Ursula is reserved, reticent and conciliatory as she copes with her loss of depth perception which makes new places dangerous for her. The quintet work well together as an ensemble that is often at odds with each other due to Emilio’s prodding.
The stage is dominated by Arnulfo Maldonado’s back porch with its swing and wooden chair and the backdoor and window of Ursula’s house with brick benches on either side of the steps. Although you might not have thought so, it works beautifully for the entire play giving the actors enough places to regroup throughout the evening. The costume design by Jennifer Moeller and Miriam Kelleher help define the characters as different from each other. Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting makes it a dark night after sunset but the lights from the house help with the illumination. The sound design by Palmer Hefferan is responsible for the weird voice used for Death’s five appearances.
Though long at two hours and ten minutes without an intermission, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ The Comeuppance is absorbing at revealing what people just reaching their 40’s are concerned about. The revelations are neatly parceled throughout the play, and the title may have another meaning by the end when one of the characters is left out of going to the reunion. However, the author might rethink the appearances of Death or make these appearances more integral to the play. The play should leave the audience with a good deal to think about and talk over.
The Comeuppance (through July 9, 2023)
The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, 480 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit http://www.thecomeuppance.net/info
Running time: two hours and ten minutes without an intermission