John Updike famously averred that he focused so intently and minutely on the everyday in his writing in order “to give the mundane its beautiful due.’’
“Every Brilliant Thing’’ appears to harbor a similar ambition, although the impetus for its protagonist’s celebration of small quotidian joys has to do with life-and-death stakes, not literary matters.
The unnamed Narrator in this 70-minute solo play, portrayed at SpeakEasy Stage Company by the inimitable Adrianne Krstansky, starts compiling an inventory of life’s small pleasures when she is 7 years old. Why would such a young child begin recording experiences and sensations rather than simply having them? Because her mother has just made her first suicide attempt, and the girl wants to equip her with a list of reasons to go on living.
As the Narrator’s own life unfolds, through college, first romance, and marriage, she keeps adding to that list, fearful that one day she too might succumb to “that trap-door feeling.’’ Indeed, there do come times when the Narrator has need of her painstakingly constructed inventory of things that make life worth living, as a bulwark against despair.
It’s an undeniably poignant concept that helps make “Every Brilliant Thing,’’ directed at SpeakEasy by Marianna Bassham, an emotionally resonant production. But it is not, overall, a dramatically satisfying one. The problem is structural; specifically, the incessant audience participation that is built into “Every Brilliant Thing,’’ which was written by playwright Duncan Macmillan with comedian Jonny Donahoe, both British.
There’s nothing wrong with engaging the audience, obviously, but the constant back-and-forth prevents that all-important suspension of disbelief from kicking in with “Every Brilliant Thing,’’ significantly diluting the impact of the play.
With the house lights up throughout the show at the Roberts Studio Theatre, reconfigured for an in-the-round staging, Krstansky is forced to hasten around the theater and enlist spectators to play various parts: the Narrator’s father, a guidance counselor, a college professor, her first boyfriend. In addition, audience members are supplied beforehand with written items on slips of paper, and when Krstansky says a certain number throughout the show, they call out a “brilliant thing’’: vinyl albums, birdsong, ice cream, hugs, water fights, being cooked for, Nina Simone’s voice, “films that are better than the books they’re adapted from,’’ and so on.
Though this approach was presumably meant to make the audience feel more invested in the play, the effect too often is the opposite. Whenever an individual spectator is drawn into the proceedings, the rest of us are taken, however briefly, out of the play. These breaks in the show’s momentum add up, steadily loosening the hold Krstansky is trying to maintain on us.
For all of her skill, we end up with a superficial sense of the Narrator. We don’t really learn much about the mother whose chronic depression drives the action, either. The father is a somewhat more intriguing figure. In an effective scene that suggests how we reframe memory to suit our present-day needs, the Narrator essentially rewrites his dialogue so that her father’s reaction to her mother’s first suicide attempt registers as empathetic rather than remote and judgmental.
Attired at the performance I saw in jeans, sneakers, and a gray cardigan over a T-shirt with a “Twin Peaks’’ logo on it, Krstansky projects a next-door-neighbor likability that enables her to generate warmth and humor in her interactions with the audience. More than once, she proved herself capable of a quick ad-lib, too. But the actress is not able to deliver the kind of rich character portrait of which she’s eminently capable.
It’s doubly frustrating because if I were making a list of brilliant things in Boston theater, Adrianne Krstansky would be on it. In recent years, she has delivered one knockout performance after another: as the desolate, achingly needy Lola in David Cromer’s production of William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba’’; as Virginia, a bewildered widow left with a mysterious mountain of debt by her late husband in Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Three Viewings’’; as Vivienne, a middle-aged baker trying to cope with her mother’s Alzheimer’s in Steve Yockey’s “Blackberry Winter’’; as Phyllis, a college professor fearful she is losing her female lover to a male photographer in Annie Baker’s “Body Awareness’’; and even in the relatively minor role of the unnamed, guilt-stricken secretary to Bernie Madoff in Deborah Margolin’s “Imagining Madoff.’’
I’ll look forward to Krstansky’s next performance, as I always do. Especially if the audience leaves the acting to her.
EVERY BRILLIANT THING
By Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe. Directed by Marianna Bassham. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through March 31. Tickets from $25. 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.comDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin