Checking In on Millennials as They Approach the Brink of Middle Age
In addition to being Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Covid play, ‘The Comeuppance’ is the 38-year-old writer’s typically smart, funny, and unsettling take on his generation’s particular place in a troubled socio-political landscape.
In the early days of the Covid shutdown, before any of us knew how long the pandemic would last or how devastating it would prove, the British actor Gunnar Cauthery tweeted, “When this is all over, I genuinely don’t want to see a SINGLE play about coronavirus.” I heartily agreed at the time, but more than three years later, I’ve come to recognize Mr. Cauthery’s wish as an impossible dream — and to realize, moreover, that some playwrights who would draw inspiration from a prolonged period of reflection might want to acknowledge that source.
One such artist happens to be the Obie Award winner and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, whose new play, “The Comeuppance,” focuses on a group of friends who have gathered in the wake of the pandemic for their 20th high school reunion. The first character we meet, tellingly, is Death — not represented visually by an actor, but embodied vocally by sound designer Palmer Hefferan, so that he or she or they or it (I won’t presume to assign a pronoun to this figure) takes turns inhabiting the others, each sounding like a variation on Darth Vader.
Mostly, though, actors Brittany Bradford, Caleb Eberhardt, Susannah Flood, Bobby Moreno, and Shannon Tyo speak in unaltered voices, giving flesh and spirit to men and women who are all on the brink of middle age, though some have had to face their mortality more directly than others. Ms. Bradford’s Ursula, who’s hosting a pre-reunion party at the home she shared with her recently deceased grandmother, has lost an eye to diabetes. Mr. Moreno’s Francisco is a military veteran whose five tours of duty, including a stint at Fallujah, have left him with debilitating PTSD.
A sixth friend, who apparently has had an easier ride, pops up only as a voice on the phone. “Look at all the s— we’ve been through,” he says, citing Columbine, September 11 and the subsequent wars, President Trump, and the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, in addition to Covid. “I want to say it’s too much for one lifetime, but then I think: What does that even mean? I look at my parents and I’m like, ‘Wait, they lived through the same s— and then some?’ And don’t get me started on my grandparents.”
“Comeuppance” is not, in fact, merely Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’s Covid play; it is the 38-year-old writer’s typically smart, funny, and unsettling take on his generation’s particular place in a troubled socio-political landscape. It’s not hard to imagine the Ivy League-educated playwright spending his own teenage years in something resembling the “Multi-Ethnic Reject Group,” as the old friends we meet here still call themselves, though it would be a stretch, at least for an outsider, to perceive autobiographical aspects among these characters.
In addition to Ursula and Francisco, there’s Ms. Flood’s anxious, poignant Caitlin, whom the others believe squandered her brains and beauty on marriage to an older police officer with far-right leanings. Kristina, who turns up late, is juggling a high-pressure medical career with five children; Ms. Tyo hilariously captures both her alpha-female armor and her underlying desperation, which becomes more evident as the pals indulge in booze and weed, leading us to wonder if they’ll ever get off Ursula’s porch and make it to the reunion.
Mr. Eberhardt’s cool, wry Emilio, an artist who appears to have carved out a life far from home, may seem to invite more parallels to Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins at first, though as the character is more fully revealed, he becomes bitter and judgmental to the point of cruelty, lashing out at the others as he, like them, confronts unresolved relationships and unfulfilled longing. The playwright, for his part, is clearly not interested in indicting his fellow millennials; none of the characters here are portrayed as snowflakes, and under Eric Ting’s vigorous direction, their conflicts are traced with both wit and respect, as well as patience.
Clocking in at more than two hours without an intermission, “The Comeuppance” can test that last virtue; its final scene in particular could use some editing. The play’s closing moments, though, are a gentle treasure, and will send you away both sated and with much to consider, regardless of your age or your thoughts on the pandemic or other modern catastrophes.