Every Brilliant Thing, now enjoying a rare open-ended off-Broadway run at the Barrow Street Theater, is a fine, if surprisingly different, theater-going experience. If you are British, and you use the word “brilliant” to describe a good cup of tea, a good meal, or a good exercise routine, then this show is definitely worthy of the word. But if you are American, somewhat jaded, and reserve the word brilliant for scientific breakthroughs that aid humanity, or art that is truly unique and eye opening, then I would say that this show is simply clever and sweet.
Brilliant is the story of a boy with a suicidal mother, who sets out on a mission to save her by chronicling all things “brilliant,” organizing a list in the hope that it will inspire her to live. The list quickly takes on a life of its own, providing more for the boy than it ever could for his mother—leading him to school, to therapy, and to love.
Written by Duncan MacMillian and Jonny Donahoe, and given its tonal similarity to the confessional one-man shows of the 1990s, many will assume that the work is autobiographical, but that is not expressly indicated in any of the materials. The show is performed solely by Donahoe and has few design elements: in fact, the show consists of just a man on a stage with some props, and often those props are members of his audience.
In performing a work that is part theater piece and part self-help seminar, Donahue brings forth a unique audience experience. He does an amazing job of drawing us in and in allowing us to watch others get drawn in—the real “brilliance” of the work. In telling the story, Donahue also stages for us that universal part of human nature that desires to assist every child in an unfortunate circumstance. We all want to help, even if the only way we can is in consenting to participate, to play along as a prop for the performance.
It is a shame that this show’s view into our collective nature is simply that: a view. The writers choose not to address this phenomenon, and to some, the absence of this commentary may make the evening feel overly manipulative. Otherwise, the result of this endeavor is a sweetly inspiring and resonate hour.