J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Every Brilliant Thing: Finding Laughter in Depression

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 here), which premieres this coming Monday on HBO.

Playing 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.

Apparently, 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.

Sounds 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 screen.

The 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.

In 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 greater resonance.

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.

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