Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Every Brilliant Thing: Finding Laughter in Depression
is a serious medical condition and potentially a life-threatening illness. At a
time when sore-losers throwing temper tantrums claim to be suffering from
depression because an election did not turn out as they hoped, playwright
Duncan Macmillan and comedian Jonny Donahue remind us what depression really
means. Filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato document Donahue performing
Macmillan’s sort of one-man show during live 2015 performances at the
Off-Broadway Barrow Street Theatre in Every
Brilliant Thing (trailer
which premieres this coming Monday on HBO.
Macmillan’s narrator rather than exposing the darkest nights of his own soul,
Donahue will milk the comedy from ripe topics like the death of a beloved
childhood pet, his mother’s initial suicide attempt, and her ultimate suicide
ten years later. Obviously, this is tough stuff for a kid to process, but the
young protagonist hoped to convince his mother to choose life by amassing a
list of brilliant, life-affirming things that were too good to miss out on.
Some are kids’ stuff, like “ice cream” and others are clichés, such as “falling
in love” and “surprises,” but that does not mean they do not have value,
especially in the context of their compilation.
the boy’s list was lost on his mother, despite his attempts to push it on her.
However, it holds therapeutic value for him as he grapples with the ripple
effects of his mother’s acute depression. It even helps him relate to the
understanding college girlfriend he would ultimately marry. Unfortunately, Donahue’s
stage persona eventually becomes alienated from his now mammoth list, slipping
into his own pernicious morass of depression.
like funny material, right? Yet, somehow it is. Sort of like vintage Gleason,
Donahue earns a lot of laughs from reaction shots when he impresses
unsuspecting audience members into service, playing his gruff but well-meaning
father, the compassionate veterinarian who euthanized his dear Sherlock Bones,
and his forgiving [ex-]wife. He also distributes numerous brilliant things throughout
the audience, to be recited on cue. Despite all the audience participation,
Bailey & Barbato translate the show rather remarkably well to the small
last thing Macmillan and Donahue ever suggest is that there are any easy
answers for families struggling with depression-related issues. Really, the
whole point of the show is to emphasize how difficult but not uncommon it is to
face such tribulations, especially if they do not seek professional help—without
ever coming across like a public service announcement.
fact, there is an awful lot of wit in EBT,
coming from both Macmillan and Donahue. The playwright also has great taste in
music, making the narrator’s father a jazz fan, whose LP collection includes
Albert Ayler, a tragic case of presumed suicide. He also throws in some knowing
bits about the pleasures of record collecting, which gives the narrative even
The running time clocks in just over an hour,
but when EBT wraps, we feel like we
have lived through the narrator’s stormy life with him. Throughout it all,
Donahue commands the stage and our attention. Based on his star turn, you might
expect him to become something like the next Mike Birbiglia. Highly recommended
for general audiences, Every Brilliant
Thing airs on HBO this coming Monday (12/26), very definitely scheduled
with the holidays in mind.
Labels: HBO, Jonny Donahue