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The Comeuppance

Theatre Review by Kimberly Ramírez - June 5, 2023

Bobby Moreno, Shannon Tyo, Susannah Flood,
Brittany Bradford, and Caleb Eberhardt

Photo by Monique Carboni
On the narrow porch of the same D.C.-area house where they once took their prom photos, a self-proclaimed Multi-Ethnic Reject Group (MERG(E)..."it's a soft G") reconvenes to "pre-game" for their 20-year high school reunion. For over two hours, this scenario unfolds as Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' The Comeuppance, a continuous-action, intermissionless dramatic force at the Signature's Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre. This monologue-heavy ensemble piece attempts to capture the spirit–all of the spirits–of our time by offering up a composite, solipsistic U.S.-millennial zeitgeist.

In the world of the play, the static front-porch set is justified as an accommodation for the urgently advancing ambylopia of pre-reunion party host Ursula (Brittany Bradford); half-blind with depth perception issues, Ursula's fellow guests MERGE around the front door with limited, contrived offstage exits into her house ("I think she's worried about people moving things around in there"). The slim outdoor territory serves to foment discord as folks hang on the threshold: an all-too literal representation of death's doorstep.

Even the limp plants in Arnulfo Maldonado's set design appear to dangle in limbo between life and death, as does the wrinkled American flag drooping from its pole. Death becomes personified through a morbid motif dominated by Palmer Hefferan's sound design, aiming to grab you from the opening curtain. Clichéd, Halloween-style conceptualizations of a reaper-curated afterlife are cued by familiar FX–the eerie reverb vocal filter, an ominous horror soundtrack of crescendoing doom. The death voice speaks through direct address only, gradually MERGing with each body. It's a convenient conceit for delivering exposition, inner monologue, and post-pandemic reflections on mortality.

While the play's infinite backstory accounts for all of the MERGEd identities, you may still wonder what cohered these representative honor students in the first place. Camaraderie resurfaces through puerile pranks and an oddball vernacular that stops excessive conversations with gestural onomatopoeias–if only spectators could employ the group's neck-cracking maneuver ("KRK!") to trim the play's repetitive dialogue. Conflict is propelled by the unexpected homecoming of MERGE-adjacent Paco (Bobby Moreno)–a traumatized military veteran, purported date-rapist/ex-boyfriend of codependent colleague Caitlin (Susannah Flood), and cousin of inebriated anesthesiologist Kristina (Shannon Tyo). Paco proves a rival homecoming foil for the cynical (Whitney) Biennial artist Emilio (Caleb Eberhardt), an anti-American expat back after 13 years in Berlin. Playing the pair of late-entrance cousins, Moreno and Tyo arrive like dynamos and sustain the pack with the most stimulating performances.

A No Exit quality pervades most scenes as the group stays stuck on the static set waiting for a perpetually postponed car. When the dazzling headlights of their frivolously booked limousine finally appear (lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker), unseen driver Miguel honks for them with "la Cucaracha." This strategically employed stereotype hints at undiscussed class distinctions among underrepresented communities, specifically between these indulgent outcasts and their ride. Ultimately, The Comeuppance's "Multi-Ethnic" group seems privileged and mainstream with the "Reject" part of the acronym unjustified. If someone rejected them at school, it's not revealed in the dense unpacking of the past. Group members continually reject each other, however, as futile attempts to forge genuine connections induce inevitable loneliness.

Chandrashaker's lighting design delivers harsh downlighting for the voice-of-death's direct addresses in an otherwise naturalistic chronicle of a porch-lit evening, transcended by one climactic moment in which light, set, and sound converge to express Emilio's desperate isolation. This technical feat is not signaled by the script (though may be inspired by the playwright's string of "door-closing" metaphors) and might best be attributed to the show's "magic designer" Skylar Fox under Eric Ting's keen direction.

The play's desultory denouement folds a battery-draining FaceTime dialogue citing the rapid rise of AI into its concluding synthesis, MERG-ing together "all the shit we've lived through–It's like too much, Columbine, 9/11, the war, the war, the endless war, then Trump, then COVID, whatever the fuck is going on in the Supreme Court... Roe v. Wade..." Missing throughout The Comeuppance's action is any explicit discussion about ethnicity and equality. Audiences enduring past the two-hour mark may wonder if Emilio, abandoned by his colleagues on Ursula's porch with dead cell phone in hand, will be confronted by cops, mistaken for an intruder, or...? But, true to the play's Sartrean undertones, nothing happens–albeit without poignant irony or payoff. The voice of death reinhabits for its terminal narrative, an epilogical report of what the future holds post-reunion. Just before the final blackout, however, we find ourselves absorbed into a curious audio track of metatheatrical mosquito tones–a piercing performance inside a performance. This punctuating nonverbal dramatization of connection and disconnection overcomes us in the play's wake of words, plunging us into, or delivering us back from, solitude.

The Comeuppance
Through June 25, 2023
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd St., New York NY
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