‘The Comeuppance’ Off Broadway Review: Or, How a Great Play Exposes the Worst Years of Our Lives

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins knows why no one ever really recovers from high school

"The Comeuppance"
"The Comeuppance" (Credit: Monique Carboni)

The only bummer is the announcement that no one will be seated after the two-hour and 10-minute play, which is “performed without intermission,” has begun. Fortunately, five minutes into “The Comeuppance,” you will relax, forget about the need for a break, and simply eavesdrop in the most rumormonger fashion as five friends plan how they will observe their 20th high school reunion. What is it about high school that breeds such addictive, lethal curiosity? The desire to witness a well-deserved revenge on the Classmate Most Likely to Succeed is the lowest of emotions sparked by such infrequent get-togethers, which is why Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins has picked the perfect title for his fascinating new play. “The Comeuppance” had its world premiere Monday at the Signature Theatre.

Jacobs-Jenkins focuses on a group of honor students who used to call themselves the Multi-Ethnic Reject Group, or MERGE for short. Any theatergoer should be happy just to hear dialogue that takes a left just when you expect the chatter to turn right. The five friends make a gesture of breaking someone’s neck whenever one of them begins to ramble, which all of them are prone to do. Even those shaggy dog stories captivate as all the non sequiturs ram into each other to expose everything that can go wrong in two decades of living one’s life.

What elevates this reunion-party play into a whole other stratosphere of eavesdropping fascination is the role of Death. From Bengt Ekerot in “The Seventh Seal” to Brad Pitt in “Meet Joe Black,” Death has taken many forms in the theater and film. “The Comeuppance” might be the first where each of the five actors on stage gets a moment, or two, to play the Grim Reaper as these friends approach the half-way point in their lives.

These soliloquy moments are especially startling because Eric Ting’s direction is otherwise so unobtrusive. He creates the impression that “The Comeuppance” is just a bunch of friends sitting around taking, getting drunk and then stoned and fighting and even making out along the way. The conversations are often “rambling,” the gravest sin according to these friends, but Jacobs-Jenkins uses those extended chats to set up a Big Reveal about his lead character: Emilio (Caleb Eberhardt) is a biracial male who escaped America years ago to be an artist and have a kid in Germany. He is back in the States for a very short visit to open his new art installation (a swimming pool with soundscapes) and, much more important, to reopen some old wounds.

In the course of this evening spent on a friend’s porch (set by Arnulfo Maldonado), it’s obvious no one ever really knew the real Emilio. Eberhardt exudes charisma, and despite all of Emilio’s scab-picking, he grabs not only our attention but our sympathy. He is also pretty spectacular at flipping his charm to deliver a most sinister Death. By the way, his platinum blond hair is a masterstroke, and far scarier than anything in “Grey House.”

“The Comeuppance,” sans the various incarnations of Death, sometimes recalls two reunion movies: “Return of the Secaucus 7” and “The Big Chill.” The war in Vietnam continues to hover over the lives of those film characters. In “The Comeuppance,” it is Columbine, 9/11 and the COVID pandemic that has just ended. A more up-to-date play than “The Comeuppance” does not exist. One of the great pleasures here, among many others, is how Jacobs-Jenkins takes us right up to June 2023 through the play’s many references to yesterday’s news.

Eric Ting directs with a subtle hand. He lets his actors and the script do the work. Only the moments featuring Death get a little showy, with Amith Chandrashaker’s design of a solo spotlight on the actor and Palmer Hefferan’s sound design, which suddenly overlays the voices with echoes. The special effects are definitely not needed.

Emilio isn’t the only one who emerges as a full-bodied character with a fraught past. Ursula (Brittany Bradford), the evening’s host, has lost sight in one eye due to diabetes. Caitlin (Susannah Flood) is married to some Jan. 6 fanatic with a couple of adopted kids she doesn’t much like. Kristina (Shannon Tyo) is the medical doctor with five kids who, exhausted from her recent Covid duty, finds solace in booze.

And then there’s Paco (Bobby Moreno), Caitlin’s old boyfriend who never really belonged to MERGE in the first place. As his character is written, Moreno is required to deliver a grand performance, not quite in sync with the subtlety of the other actors. Paco suffers from some mental illness that is every bit as untethered to reality as all the meds he takes. Only in the theater does this kind of outburst take place, and it unfortunately throws the play out of whack – until Emilio takes back the focus.

Paco’s explosion is that rare momentary lapse in the play’s strong narrative. Jacobs-Jenkins throws a lot of strings out there, and in the end the mesmerizing Emilio is able to pull them all together into a neat hangman’s knot.