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Review: ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ at Arden Theatre Company

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The list began after her first attempt. A list of everything brilliant about the world. Everything worth fighting for.

If I were to make a list of every brilliant thing about the world, audience participation would not make the list. When I go to the theater, I prefer actors to do all the acting and audience members to, well, observe. (And turn their phones off. And not sing along during a musical.)

So why did I love watching Every Brilliant Thing at the Arden? Partly because actor Scott Greer and director Terrence J. Nolen turn this offbeat, heartwarming play into a team effort – and makes you feel like a welcome part of the team.

Scott Greer. Photo by Ashley LaBonde, Wide Eyed Studios.

Scott Greer. Photo by Ashley LaBonde, Wide Eyed Studios.

This solo piece, written by British playwright Duncan Macmillan and comedian Jonny Donahoe, tells the story of a seven-year boy who consoles himself from the harshness around him – his mother has just attempted suicide, his father is distant and insensitive – by creating a list of everything that makes him happy, everything that makes life worth living.

The list becomes more than just a way to ward off the depression that stalks him as relentlessly as it has his mother. As we follow the boy to manhood, watching him deal with school, death, another parental suicide attempt, and falling in and out of love, we see how the list becomes a touchstone that he returns to at trying (or triumphant) times in his life.

As the show progresses, we hear highlights from the list. Before the show begins, Greer hands out cards to audience members; each card has a number and an entry from the list. And at key moments, Greer calls out a number, and the audience member holding the corresponding card reads aloud what’s written on the card. It may be “ice cream” or “palindromes” or “things with stripes” or “the alphabet” or “the prospect of dressing up as a Mexican wrestler.” Or dozens of other seemingly random items that represent the easy-to-dismiss minutiae of life’s rich pageant.

Nolen stages Every Brilliant Thing with an eye for detail: as with the list, it’s the little things that matter in this show. It’s staged in a small space with the audience on all four sides; this approach takes an already emotional story and adds to its immediacy. (It’s the inaugural production at the Arden’s new Bob and Selma Horan Studio Theatre.) There’s no furniture and no fuss – just an Oriental rug on the floor, and a plain shirt and jeans for Greer to wear. (Christopher Haig is the Production Designer, Amanda Wolff the Costume Designer.)

Greer is an accomplished, versatile actor whose warmth and naturalism serve him well here. (He was Joel Markowitz’s favorite Philly actor – “He can do anything,” Joel once said of him – and his flexibility and inventiveness in this performance reminded me why.)

And his improv skills take the show to a higher level – his ability to take liberties with the text without making the show run aground are remarkable. At one point on opening night Greer asked if anyone in the audience had food he could borrow for a scene; one person reached into his pocket and offered a packet labeled “Dried Merlot Wine Grapes.” Greer looked at him skeptically and cracked, “Couldn’t you have just gotten raisins?” He may gently tease audience members, but he never makes them feel uncomfortable.

And I’m living proof of that. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be pressed into service to play the narrator’s father on opening night! When he guided me gently through a handful of scenes – including a particularly moving father-and-son interaction – I was reminded how wise I was to give up acting in college. But I made it through. And late in the play, when he hauled me out of my chair and onto that rug to offer a toast during a boisterous wedding scene, I stood there in front of a few dozen strangers (and a handful of friends) thinking “What did I get myself into?”

But I’m glad he chose me, even though I was the least “brilliant thing” onstage that night. And you’ll be glad you chose this poignant, uplifting show. It’ll make you smile a lot – even if your only contribution to the show is to pick an index card up off your lap and read the word “palindromes.”

Running time: One hour, with no intermission.

Every Brilliant Thing plays through December 10, 2017 at the Arden Theatre Company, performing at the Bob and Selma Horan Studio Theatre at the Hamilton Family Arts Center – 62 North Second Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 922-1122, or purchase them online.

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