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Review: "Every Brilliant Thing" Too Cute For Its Own Good

“Every Brilliant Thing,” Geffen Playhouse, Sept. 14 – Oct. 15, 2023

Sept. 23, 2023 | By Bruce R. Feldman

In Brief: A well-meaning if misguided attempt to treat the subject of severe depression and suicide in a lighthearted fashion, which on a good day might have worked in the hands of a brilliant dramatist but doesn’t here. Daniel K. Isaac does his best to rise to the occasion, performing with confidence despite the questionable concept.

Daniel K. Isaac in "Every Brilliant Thing" at The Geffen (Photo: Isaak Berliner)

The Geffen Playhouse is reviving Every Brilliant Thing, Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe’s slight one-person performance piece from 2013 that has earned a following from regional American and British theatre companies.

The premise: A young man explains to the audience that throughout his childhood his mother experienced bouts of severe depression and tried to end her life several times. As an adolescent he came up with the idea to compile a list of beautiful, simple things that he could share with her to cheer her up.

He continues into adulthood to add items to the list, reaching a total of several thousand entries, even as his mother sinks further and further into despair and self-destruction. The project doesn’t help her, but it comforts him as a kind of coping mechanism.

Audience members play various roles in "Every Brilliant Thing" (Photo: Isaak Berliner)

The story is told as an interactive monologue that relies on a heavy measure of audience participation to wring laughs out of the mother and son’s sad situation. Audience members are called on to read random items on the list or play the part of the boy’s father or a veterinarian who euthanizes the child’s dog. A playgoer’s sweater substitutes for an actual dog, which will give you an idea of the play’s unfortunate tone.

The playwrights and director Colm Summers doubtless intended this approach to be life-affirming or uplifting in some way, although, as they aren’t trained actors, the audience members resort to mugging their lines for cheap laughs. The result is pallid amusement rather than authenticity.

Daniel K. Isaac has the task of making this muddle work. He’s a likable actor, bounding energetically around the small theater to engage with the audience. He’s winning , irrepressible, funny. That would be a plus in another context. It feels disingenuous here.

At a brief 70 minutes, Every Brilliant Thing is an extended gimmick in search of a play. It’s entertaining, but to what end?

“Every Brilliant Thing,” Geffen Playhouse Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90024, (310) 208-2028,


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