Review: A Heart-Affirming Every Brilliant Thing With Daniel K. Isaac

The Geffen Playhouse presents Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe’s 2013 solo play.

A man stands onstage, surrounded by seated audience members.
Daniel K. Isaac stars in Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe’s Every Brilliant Thing, directed by Colm Summers, at the Geffen Playhouse.
(© Isaak Berliner)

In Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe’s Every Brilliant Thing, we all are the tapestry of the collective unconscious. Every story is universal, and every human plays a part in each other’s life lessons. The playwrights and director Colm Summers vividly convey this at the Geffen Playhouse with an immersive work, where audience members read lines given to them and must even improvise roles. These are not plants that pretend to be objective observers who are in on the game. These are ordinary audience members contributing to the lead character’s narrative, and it’s subtle but heart-affirming.

The playwrights select a simple story of a young boy growing up, coping with his mother’s mental illness, and choosing to cheer himself up by cataloging a list of all the wonders life has to offer. He starts this list as a child but continues it on as he matures, however he feels the deep sadness that has invaded his mother is festering inside himself as well. This list becomes a parachute, a reminder of the goodness in the world. As loved ones and strangers guide him with suggestions of new items, the affirmations become a global net to always protect him and give him love.

The Geffen production is not the first stop of this charming show. Every Brilliant Thing has played festivals and off-Broadway and was filmed for HBO starring coauthor Donahoe. However, had one not read the program beforehand, it would not be surprising to believe this to be actor Daniel K. Isaac’s life story. It feels so personal, and Isaac inhabits the character so well, that it plays like a confession, not a performance.

Two men chat in theater seats.
Daniel K. Isaac performs a scene with an audience member in Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe’s Every Brilliant Thing, directed by Colm Summers, at the Geffen Playhouse.
(© Isaak Berliner)

Isaac reveals himself to be a playful scamp before the show begins. He leads wandering audience members to their seats, conspires to have some read passages when called upon, and relaxes the audience so they’re willing participants when the time comes for a doctor, a father, or even a sock puppet to arrive. At 70 minutes, the evening doesn’t have time for one reluctant audience member to refuse to join in the festivities. Summers allows Isaac to orchestrate the audience without any stagecraft. It’s up to Isaac to engage once the show begins. If he fails to envelope these 150 strangers into his mosaic, the evening could unravel.

Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set is simple but effectively youthful. A splattering of paint in the center of the arena stage is colorful and buoyant. Above, autumn-colored Afghan blankets on the ceiling form both a sun enclosing the theater and a macrame metaphor for the interweaving of everyone in attendance.

Every Brilliant Thing is a life affirming but quirky reminder that we must rely on each other to tackle these natural and scientific hardships we all face, whether a devastating flood or a personal chemical imbalance. It may be human to have a me-first attitude and focus only on your own drama, but that would be antithetical to the play’s recommendation. We all build bridges to uplift ourselves and everyone around us, and that is a brilliant thing indeed.

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