Scott Greer excels in ‘Every Brilliant Thing,’ returning in triumph to the Arden
The play was a smash hit last year at the Arden, so here it is again, hoping to recapture lightning in the bottle of the Arden's smaller upstairs theater. Thanks to the storytelling power of Scott Greer in the main role, this production has a mesmerizing, at times hyper-real power.
If asked to compile a list of top-five Philadelphians I would love to hang out at a bar with, that group would definitely include the Scott Greer currently performing in Every Brilliant Thing at the Arden.
The title of Duncan Macmillan's one-man show refers to a list, one started in childhood by the narrator, played here by Greer, as it was last year this time. (The Arden has made the unusual move of bringing back a smash-hit adult show the year after its debut, testifying to the popularity of this production, which has been extended twice already, to Dec. 23.)
This numbering includes anything "brilliant about the world" that by being genuine and life-affirming makes life bearable. Greer's character began the list at 9 in response to his mother's first attempt at suicide (later, Greer admits the naiveté behind a child's idea that a life of nice things could combat depression).
His list starts with any 9-year-old's favorite — ice cream! — and abounds with the childhood pleasures of roller-coasters, hammocks, and people falling over, eventually maturing through the beautiful and sublime (such as "that knowing look you exchange with someone who just hopped onto a train the moment the doors closed").
Macmillan's story progresses through college (and late-adolescent exposure to alcohol and sex) to the struggles of young marriage, employment, and parental decline. Along the way, the list grows a life of its own, amended and added to by friends and colleagues, towering into the hundreds of thousands of entries.
John Kolbinski's sound design interweaves music from each era (Ray Charles, REM, Wham!, Nirvana) a soundscape that both enlists the universality of time passing and interweaves the specific emotional associations of songs tied to critical moments in the narration. Macmillan's script affords plenty of opportunity for audience interaction, with unwitting (but, thanks to Greer, never unwilling) members dragged on stage to play elementary school guidance counselor, parent, or wife.
The sincerity of the story obscures the question of which, if any, elements in Macmillan's tale reflect reality. In that regard, and in the obsessive list-making of its protagonist, it reminds me of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, where an equally awkward and engaging narrator recounts the history of his life through numerical orderings of the brilliant, everyday, yet universal.
Greer's delivery only amplifies this sense of hyper-reality. He jokes one moment, somberly gets through personal sadness the next, and always enchants, whether relating the loss of a family pet or ad-libbing, which diffuses and enlivens the humor. For 60 minutes at the Arden, Greer's storytelling power took me into another world. I walked home that night to South Philly, wanting to stay mentally in that other world as long as possible, knowing no bar I wandered into could possibly afford a similarly charming or compelling character.