Brilliant? Let us list the ways

The one-man show "Every Brilliant Thing" begins with an amiable Isaac Lamb and builds its odd-duck case one good thing at a time

Let the record stipulate that the reviewer is not a fan of audience-participation theater.

Let the record stipulate that Every Brilliant Thing, the one-man show that opened Friday evening in the downstairs Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage at The Armory, is, is fact, an audience-participation play.

Let the record further stipulate that, notwithstanding his biases, the reviewer found himself to be absolutely charmed, and sometimes moved, and often given to outbursts of immoderate laughter. Let the record observe that the reviewer stands corrected, at least this once.

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Isaac Lamb works the crowd. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Every Brilliant Thing – performed with intense likability (if that’s a possible thing) by Isaac Lamb, with the smart and nimble collaboration of director Rose Riordan and some on-the-nose sound design by Casi Pacilio – is an odd duck of a play, but then, sometimes the odd ducks are the interesting ones. Written by Duncan Macmillan and original performer Jonny Donahoe, it debuted in 2013 at the Ludlow Fringe Festival in Shropshire before crossing the Atlantic to New York and beyond. It bears a striking affinity to the sort of theater known as standup comedy, which thrives, among other things, on improvisational give-and-take with the audience. Lamb achieves complicity not by bristling aggressively at the audience, as standups often do, but by sweet-talking them, in gee-shucks conspiratorial tones, into helping him out. And help him out they do, even the ones who feel just a little self-conscious about being suckered in.

Every Brilliant Thing, performed on a basically bare stage in the round (or oblong), carries some striking similarities to Center Stage’s bigger season-opening musical playing upstairs on the Main Stage at The Armory – Fun Home, which Matthew Andrews reviews insightfully and favorably for ArtsWatch here. That the two plays go about these similar things in very different ways is part of the deep pleasure of the theater. Both are memoirs of a sort, their authors looking back on sometimes traumatic childhoods and carrying those obsessions forward into adulthood, where the traumas remain in the background and sometimes poke their heads toward the front. Depression and the threatening cloud of suicide hover over both tales. The characters in both create out-of-the-ordinary escape valves for themselves.

Lamb: Everyman, but better. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

In Every Brilliant Thing, the title’s something of a giveaway to Lamb’s improvised escape valve. With the inconceivable death, when he was a boy of 7, of his dog, Sherlock Bones, and his nervous mother’s later botched attempt to kill herself, our hero begins to make a list: “Everything beautiful in the world. … All the things that at the age of 7 I thought were really good.” As he grows older, and goes to college, and falls in love, and marries, and gets subsumed by everyday life, and watches as things start to fall apart, the list variously disappears and comes back into view and grows and grows and grows, often being added to by lovers and other strangers (for in a way, it seems that even those he holds most dear are somehow strangers to him).

Before the performance begins Lamb slips cue cards to various members of the audience, instructing them to shout out the words on the cards when he announces the number attached to them. And so they do: a running proclamation, often in the nick of time, of the good things in life, the things that argue “live” as opposed to “die.” Hammock. Nina Simone’s voice. Skinny dipping. Having dessert for a main course. Bubble wrap. Along the way, with the aid of other members of the audience, Lamb introduces us to Ruff the sock dog, and a kindly veterinarian, and his distant father, and the love of his life, sweet bookish Sam, and the pleasures of vinyl recordings and album liner notes, and a myriad of everyday things. He even sings, quite winningly, snatches of a few songs, and does it all with deceptively unobtrusive grace and a shambling, smiling, ingratiating gait.

If all of this sounds a trifle pat, or oversimplified, or sentimental, it is. And yet it’s not, because one of the play’s points is that simplicity can be extraordinarily complex. The truth is that depression, which is at the heart of this thing, often wears everyday clothing and a quiet face, and although coping mechanisms can seem silly or even desperate, they can also be successful. Even when it’s a struggle: “Suicide is contagious,” Lamb tells us at one point. “It’s called the Werther Effect,” after The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe’s 1774 romantic novel of a doomed triangle, that actually drove some of its readers to kill themselves.

Lamb, enlisting collaborators. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

A show like this will change with every performance, because the response from the audience is crucial to the heft and feel of the thing. Though Every Brilliant Thing is fully scripted, it leaves room for improvisation, for going with the moment, and so calls on more than a bit of the standup comic’s scrambling skills. And, as is true with any one-person show, it might be very different with another performer. Lamb rocks the audience in a cradle of good nature and easiness. Everyone identifies with him, and everyone wants him to succeed: He’s Everyman, except a little better. I can easily imagine a darker-toned performance, one that dwells more fully in the play’s deep places, that pushes the audience nearer the edge. That might be fine, and startling, and even wrenching, and it might embrace the audience or push it away. What we get is an average fellow, a good guy, coping with some difficult stuff. Just like, perhaps, a lot of people in the audience. And that seems true enough.

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Let the record finally stipulate that the reviewer was, indeed, called upon to participate in the proceedings, and upon the prompt he had been given (it was “Number 24”) made his debut in a speaking role in an Equity production. “Spaghetti Bolognese,” he declared boldly, in a voice he imagines carried clearly and convincingly to the far reaches of the not-too-vast auditorium. All in all, he believes, it was a satisfactory performance, although elocutionary purists and persons of Italian extraction might have quibbled about his pronunciation of “Bolognese.” Let that be. What’s done is done, and it’s now in the record books. He has vowed, as all true actors do, not to read the reviews.

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Every Brilliant Thing continues through Nov. 5 in the Ellyn Bye Studio of The Armory. Ticket and schedule information here.

One Response. Have your say.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    Let the record stipulate that this reviewer of a different art form also dislikes audience participation. But let the record also stipulate that she is extremely sorry to have missed the reviewer in question’s participation, for she knows him to have an actor’s deep, resonant speaking voice. His writer’s voice is the same.

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