May 16–June 25, 2023
I have never felt the slightest inclination to go to a high school reunion, but apparently many people do in America, and thus a subgenre of film and theater has been created. The premise is that no matter how miserable high school was or how bad your relationships were, you will return to spend a few intoxicated hours with those special people from long ago.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s riff on this genre, The Comeuppance at Signature Theatre, showcases his ease with dialogue as he keeps the action going in a continuous gabfest, seamlessly and artfully directed by Eric Ting, at the pre-party leading up to the reunion. The event brings together old friends (nerdy rejects in high school) in the DC area, reuniting twenty years later to relive their old resentments and frustrations. Of course, they smoke pot and drink too much and say inappropriately frank and insulting things to each other. Party!
Jacobs-Jenkins’s work, such as An Octoroon and Neighbors, has pushed outrageously against the boundaries of stage acceptability with their unembarrassed directness and bold choices that launched the plays into unexpected, often very uncomfortable territory.
Here, Jacobs-Jenkins puts his stamp on a familiar event in two ways.
The first is the emphatic embrace of diversity in the characters and their personal histories with respect to sexual identity, race, medical condition, gender, past trauma, current dissociative behavior, and other characteristics as given to the audience by their appearance as well as direct references in the script. One of the friends, Ursula (Brittany Bradford), wears an eye patch because she is losing her sight. Another (Bobby Moreno) has PTSD after a few tours with the military in the millennial wars waged by the US. He also has an epileptic fit on stage. Another woman, Caitlin (Susannah Flood), was raped.
An apparently successful surgeon (Shannon Tyo) reveals that she hates everything about her life, except her secret crush. Emilio (Caleb Eberhardt), an artist living and absolutely thriving in Berlin, is so troubled and made uncomfortable by his old chums that he angrily refuses the opportunity to explain his work. Each carries extra burdens, and, not surprisingly, given the setting, the origin of some of these disturbances was in high school.
The second distinguishing feature of this reunion play is the recurring intrusion of Death. At the end of several scenes, one of the characters is left alone on a darkened stage, and a spotlight hits the actor embodying Death at that moment. Death’s voice, however, is heavily modulated with echo and what sounds like a blend of several of the actors speaking the same text at once. Death is a bit of a devil, relishing the hunt, watching and commenting on the humans who will all eventually succumb. This insistent commentary, delivered by different actors along the way, creates a suspenseful plot line: not a whodunnit, but a whogonnagetit. Death also provides a lot of the backstory for each of the characters, such as Caitlin’s four miscarriages and Emilio’s substance abuse issues.
All the action takes place in the front yard and on the porch, complete with swing and Adirondack chair, of Ursula’s bungalow-style house, which she inherited from the grandmother she cared for until death (scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado). Ursula keeps refusing to go to the reunion, but she has volunteered to host the pre-party party.
The title raises the questions of determinism, choice, evil, and chance. The presence of Death as a character suggests that unseen, superhuman forces are involved in human destiny. But Ursula, a character who seems more the victim of a disease than the faulty protagonist of classical tragedy, uses the word "comeuppance" at the very end of the play to say that their fates, and hers included, are somehow the just desserts of their pasts, presumably something they did in high school. The play’s ethical point of view is muddled.
The characters often seem so hapless that it’s hard to empathize fully with them and feel engaged with their present-day problems, the years since high school having brought them little insight into their own lives. Maybe that’s why they thought it was a good idea to attend the reunion. Death’s backstory monologues sketch in extra information, not revealed in the present action, in a way that makes the plot and people feel generic sometimes, like character diagrams performing.
The Comeuppance rolls along with some unexpected turns, as surprise sexuality (past and present), the trials of the body, race, oppressive normative family structures, and even COVID-19 populate the dialogue. In the big picture, it’s a messy group love story, with a complicated, time-warped, mutating geometry of connections.
The play ends gracefully, with a nuanced late-night encounter between Ursula and Emilio. It unfolds with understanding, forgiveness, and a bit of sound art, played over Emilio’s phone rather than the embedded speaker system he envisions for this piece in the forthcoming biennial. Still, this tinny rendition slyly encapsulates the storytelling, asking how far back we can listen, whether the sounds of the past fall outside the perception of older ears. The pacing here, and the way the audio metaphor lands, may have been earned by all that preceded. However, it might also be true that the density of the narratives packed into the play doesn’t always leave room for the sensitivity of Jacobs-Jenkins’s writing to shimmer as it does at the work’s conclusion.
The Comeuppance, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Eric Ting, runs through June 25 at Signature Theatre in New York.