Everybody is going to die. You already know that, of course, but when confronted with the reality of it all, you might freak out. That’s what happens to Everybody, the titular character of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Everybody.
Sound confusing? Let me explain. Of the nine cast members in the show, four play the same character every night, while five play a different role as determined by an on-stage lottery. The main character, Everybody, learns that they are going to die and will be required to give god a presentation on why they lived their life the way they did. They also find out they’re allowed to bring along a companion for the journey.
Everybody then spends a lot of time experiencing an existential crisis and trying in vain to convince people (or objects) to accompany them on their upcoming and fatal odyssey. Everybody is based on a 15th century morality play, but the anxieties it explores have a decidedly modern flavor. Their isolation and the artificiality of their relationships feel unique to the digital age. Everybody grapples with the lies of capitalism and vacuous friendships as they approach four concepts-cum-characters—Friendship, Cousin, Kinship, and Stuff—in search of a companion. In the end, it’s Love (who makes a surprise entrance) that sticks by Everybody’s side.
These concept-characters are shells, the general shape of friendship, but not a real friend. The contours of a cousin, but not real kin. It’s easy to project yourself onto these interactions, imagining yourself as Everybody and a flaky friend as Friendship. They give the play a disorienting edge, and a lot of its humor. The actors dive into the night’s roles with energy and ease, no small task since most of the cast members have had to learn five different roles.
But because these characters aren’t exactly real people, we don’t form an emotional attachment to them. They let us think about big ideas, but we don’t feel the gravity of their struggles and fears. The fact that show is replete with meta asides and inside jokes further distances us from the emotional weight of life and death.
And what about the show’s big ideas? Everybody doesn’t present a lot of new ones. The characters sort through things that stoics and Buddhists and existentialists and minimalists have been talking about for millennia: You are dying, and the things you thought mattered don’t count for much. Maybe that’s because this has always been true. The climate crisis and 2016 election and Second Gilded Age may lend 2019’s existential crises an apocalyptic urgency, but death and the meaning of life aren’t exactly new concepts.
The play has strong moments, to be sure. Friendship and Stuff earn laughs with their painfully true dialogue. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set—a James Turrell-esque box lit by Barbara Samuels—is beautiful, and a weird dance with inflatable skeletons transfixes the audience.
But something is missing. Everybody will probably make you feel either very smart or very dumb. I suppose it’s nice to feel very smart, but I’d rather something less academic. If we’re going to have our existential crises set against the backdrop of the apocalypse, I want something to hold on to. Like Everybody, I’m looking for love.
To Nov. 17 at 450 7th St. NW. $35–$120. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.