Feeling blue? A little down in the dumps? Well, put down that straight razor and head over to the Barrow Street Theater, where a pudgy Brit comedian named Jonny Donahoe will give you a million reasons for not killing yourself. Penned by Duncan Macmillan, with assistance from Donahoe, “Every Brilliant Thing” is a concept show about a seven-year-old boy who pesters his suicidal mother with a list of all the joys worth living for. A hit at the Edinburgh Fringe, this weird little show is just what you’d expect from the Barrow Street gang.
Would-be suicides aren’t the only target audience for this oddity of a one-man show. Empty nesters, the recently bereaved and elderly subscription audiences are all fair game for the heart-tugging tale of a traumatized little boy who responds to his mother’s first (of three) suicide attempts by drawing up a list of all the wonderful (in Brit-speak, “brilliant”) gifts of life.
The earliest ones (from #1: “Ice Cream” to # 10: “Chocolate”) are the most endearing. But when his mother has another go at suicide, her son, now a teenager, picks up his list (#518: “Starting a New Book”). And by the time he has grown into manhood, he discovers that the continuously evolving list has become his own personal blueprint for a healthy life. This matters, because “we’re all subconsciously affected by the behavior of our peers,” and “suicide is particularly contagious.”
Donahoe is a warm and personable performer — so warm and personable, he doesn’t even seem to be performing as much as taking the audience into his confidence. Not only is his emotionally damaged character willing to share his precepts for a happy life with his audience, it’s actually mandatory that the audience become collaborators (or is it enablers?) in his story.
Donahoe is out there working the intimate house well before the hour-long show begins. Sizing up the incoming theatergoers, he lines up a good chunk of the audience to call out on cue whatever “brilliant thing” they’re assigned (#28: “Wearing a cape,” #997: “Cycling downhill”), along with a smaller sampling of agreeable souls to play specific characters like the narrator’s father, his school councilor, and the woman he falls in love with and eventually marries.
As shrewdly staged in the round by helmer George Perrin, the show slyly draws the agreeably complicit audience into the collective role of a support group for suicide risks. Of course, anyone who thinks that being pulled into an audience participation show is like being mauled by sticky-fingered children are well advised to stay far, far away from this touchy-feely show.