Depending on how your life has gone, a high school reunion can either be a victory lap or a source of deep humiliation. Romy and Michele taught us that. But Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has more to say on the matter (a lot more) in his wordy, depressing, intermittently explosive drama The Comeuppance, now making its world premiere at Signature Theatre.
It takes place in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in the fall of 2022, just hours before a 20-year high school reunion. Members of the self-described M.E.R.G.E. (“multi-ethnic reject group experience”) gather to pregame on the porch of the local home where Ursula (Brittany Bradford) has lived her entire life. Emilio (Caleb Eberhardt) is the first on the scene, all the way from Berlin where he lives and works as an internationally recognized sound installation artist. Caitlin (Susannah Flood) shows up next, and Emilio soon after makes a quip about her much older husband, who was at the Capitol on January 6. Kristina (Shannon Tyo) arrives in her army dress blues. An overworked doctor with five kids, she is determined to seize this opportunity for unbridled fun. But she has brought along her cousin (and Caitlin’s problematic ex-boyfriend) Francisco (Bobby Moreno), who was not in their class, was not really a part of M.E.R.G.E., and is clearly not welcome in the eyes of Emilio. Sparks fly as unsettled grudges grind against the whetstone of two decades of adult trauma.
Death is ever-present. It regularly suspends the action to speak directly to us, possessing the bodies of each of the characters over the course of this two-hour, 10-minute one-act. (Be sure to hit the bathroom beforehand, because there isn’t an intermission — just another one of death’s little humiliations.) “There is so much to admire about the human body,” it opines. “Especially at this age, so noble, fighting its good fight against a certain… softening. You cell repair systems — my most ancient nemeses — are long broken down. You lose those at 27. Did you know that?” Those of us over that age (the vast majority in any given off-Broadway audience) are undoubtedly delighted to hear this public service announcement.
The anxiety of elder millennials as we peer over the hill is a rich source of drama, and Jacobs-Jenkins finds thrilling ways to exploit that — most effectively in Emilio. By most measures, he has won the meritocratic sweepstakes. Yet his prickly, defensive posture betrays a man still nursing old wounds, and he manages to say something nasty to every one of his old friends before the night is out. Jacobs-Jenkins is a master of invective, and he reserves some of his best for Emilio. Pain radiating from his dejected gaze, Eberhardt delivers it all with unflinching brutality, mercilessly stabbing and twisting as his character shields himself in the parochial ignorance that passes for wisdom among the cultural elite.
Eric Ting directs The Comeuppance with a keen sense of dynamics, the peaks and valleys of conflict and the pregnant power of a wordless stare. It partially compensates for a shaggy script that all too often indulges in a woe-is-me accounting of the various trials and tribulations this age group has been made to endure: war, recession, Trump, pandemic. Millennials aren’t the only ones who have suffered from America’s chronic mismanagement, but you wouldn’t know it based on some of the screeds in this script, which present like lightly edited Facebook whines.
The first-rate cast helps to bring plausible humanity to this bombast. Flood and Moreno are especially exhilarating to watch, as Caitlin and Francisco dance around the embers of their mutual attraction while attempting not to get burned. The pint-sized Tyo is legitimately terrifying as Kristina, each guzzled glass of jungle juice pushing this alcoholic-workaholic further over the edge. Bradford is enigmatic as Ursula, a character who has clearly learned to reveal less, knowing that most people are too self-absorbed to pry. The most mature of the group, she is content to hang out and skip the larger reunion entirely.
We don’t blame her: Arnulfo Maldonado has designed a perfectly cozy little porch, which I initially feared would provide too little playing space for the cast (Ting’s elegant staging allayed those concerns). Amith Chandrashaker’s early evening lighting exudes dramatic potential; we can almost smell the crisp autumn air. That is further suggested by Jennifer Moeller and Miriam Kelleher’s season-appropriate costumes, which also manage to tell the story of the disparate worlds these characters now inhabit (Emilio’s ugly hipster uniform, ever prepared for a night out at RAW-Gelände, is particularly on point). Palmer Hefferan’s sound design is crucial in executing the dimension shift that allows death to interject, a garbled rumble added under the voices of every actor as if death is in the witness protection program. It’s creepy…until Death disappointingly demystifies itself by talking too much.
By the time Death delivered a protracted monologue lauding the human solidarity exhibited during the 2020 pandemic, I was fairly sick of hearing from it. “I thought you were the best version of yourself,” Death beams. What? I can’t say this comports with my experience, or that of anyone who lived through that awful year. Maybe, like these overstressed middle-aged millennials, Death needs to take a holiday.