if i ever see the comeuppance again… well, I’d like to see it in a bigger space, because a work of this emotional scale would need a few more rows to play. I’d also like to be in a seat where I can watch the audience as closely as the performers: the places where they laugh, gasp, nod, babble uncontrollably in reply, grimace, and even look away. And, this is the most important part, I would like the audience to be made up entirely of people in their 30s and 30s. And me, I guess.
He New York Times‘s Jesse Green mentioned the seminal baby boomer reunion film the great chill when describing this new off-Broadway play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. But as for the characters in that 1983 movie, they haven’t dealt with half the shit that people born in the year it came out have been through: the rise of school shootings, 9/11, decades of war, economic crises, a global pandemic, and just a general state of precariousness. Like anyone who has grown up with these horrors, the comeuppance He takes them all with him even when covering something as mundane as a porch meeting at the DMV, where the entirety of his two-plus hours takes place. And these stressors are not just background noise that millennials have been forced to absorb, but stimuli that have fundamentally changed their brains, though not necessarily in the same way. They breed nihilism and bitterness, or a desire for revolution, or a barely contained acceptance, or something less nameable.
A high school 20-year reunion is the catalyst for the cast of the play to reunite. All of them are mostly prominent former students of a Catholic school, so nerdy that even today they still don’t feel completely comfortable when a character pulls out a joint. And they are all, for the most part, part of an outgroup that consciously called itself MERGE, or “multi-ethnic rejection group.” (There is some question as to whether the E stood for “Experience” or was more like a soft G.) There’s Emilio, a Berlin-based artist visiting the United States for a show in New York. Ursula, who provides the porch and wears a patch over her left eye as a result of diabetes. Caitlin, who married an older man and has two stepchildren in their early 20s. Kristina, an anesthesiologist with a large family, whose determination to make the most of a rare night off leads her to rent a limo, despite the fact that the rest of the gang thinks she makes them look like idiots. The stranger is Paco, Kristina’s ex-Marine cousin and Caitlin’s ex, invited by Kristina after returning from a few difficult years out west.
Paco bears the most explicit scars from the disasters of his generation, but there is a greater stage presence. It is Death, or some abstract representation of it, who regularly stops the action and speaks through one of the actors, their voices modulated as if they were in witness protection. This version of Death is scary but not malevolent. She’s a force of nature, like a wolf or a flood, who doesn’t really enjoy the fact that so many are terrified of meeting her. He speaks intelligently, with a dark wit and an understanding of humanity that stretches back and forth. From the beginning, his presence as a Greek chorus prepares us for the worst.
But in the perceivable world, it is Emilio (Caleb Eberhardt) who possesses the power to scare the people around him. He has spent the longest time out of touch with these old friends (they don’t know until tonight that he has a daughter) and, as a consequence, he is the least afraid of criticizing their lives. Caitlin is married to a former Republican cop, who was in DC, but not in the capitol January 6, he emphasizes, is an early sore spot. But as the play progresses, it becomes clear that Emilio has a broader disappointment with the way his once-ambitious friends have turned out, and some unresolved issues of his own dating back to their time together. Eberhardt is tall, graceful and handsome, but has a talent for withdrawing into himself on stage when he’s feeling hurt and then coming back in force when he’s ready to make a new judgment. Emilio is a jerk who pushes buttons at times, and it has annoyed at least some viewers of the play, but I don’t think you can criticize the character’s ideals, or his emotional response to the times he’s been forced to live in, even if he expresses himself tactlessly. Alienation and disillusionment are the most normal responses I can imagine – the true millennial experience. Some use that fact as a way to excuse decisions they secretly regret. Others use it to keep the people they care about at a higher level.
Some works are like a magic trick in that they flesh out their plots and character arcs without even making you aware that they are doing so. the comeuppance it has a kind of literal little magic trick: time stops when Death appears, is all I’ll say, but its structure isn’t mysterious. You can almost see the scaffolding on which the monologues and dialogues are hung to reach their dramatic destinations. If you’ve seen plays that force contrasting characters together in one place, you’ll be familiar with the pattern of building and casting.
However, that setting prevails for a reason. There’s something viscerally exciting about watching a person, even a fictional one, break out and release the pent-up frustration of life in three dimensions right in front of you. Even better when they’re saying something you can relate to. The lingering effects of the lockdowns loom most prominently over the comeuppance, as the characters try to rebuild themselves, and their mutual memories, after so much isolation. But their burden does not make them inherently noble. Anyone who has lived in the world for the past 25 years will find something familiar about one of these people to hold on to, an experience with the potential to be unpleasant. When a character punctuated a spiral with the desperate line “I have so many children!” many people in the audience laughed, and it sounded like a nervous laugh.
the comeuppance it would be a top tier play if he just did this, and for most of his time, that’s what he is. But what elevates it to greatness is the central connection between Emilio and Ursula, played by Brittany Bradford. While her old friends view her as a charity case, she’s isolated in her home while she handles twin tragedies, she’s neither crushed by disappointment nor fueled by intense pent-up desire. She’s content to drink on her porch and catch up with people she’s known and loved for a long time, and it makes perfect sense that the play would return to her as its anchor as these relationships turn irreversibly chaotic.
Úrsula has faced a more personal version of that litany of destruction that millennials have navigated, since the very beginning of her life. His mother died three days after giving birth, in a freak accident. His father left shortly after. The grandmother who raised her alone is now gone too, and her illness has left her unsettled on unfamiliar ground. But being so intimately affected by the worst in the world seems to give her greater empathy. On the contrary, Emilio, as Death tells us, is the least familiar of the group with his work, since he has not lost anyone other than distant and elderly relatives. Emilio and Úrsula form the opposite poles that could define this generation: the man angry with the world for not being what he could be, and the woman who loves him for who he is.
The Comeuppance is at the Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, through July 9.
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