School reunions, like work and family ones, are fertile ground for dramatists, offering an excuse to gather disparate characters with a catalog of ready-made conflicts. (There’s always someone who got dumped, dissed or disowned x years ago.) Add alcohol or pot to fuel the resurgence of old feelings and loosen the tongue, then let the heavy compression of the timeline, just a weekend or even a night, do the rest.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins juggles all of these elements in “The Comeuppance,” which opened Monday at the Signature Theater. But if he’d merely updated the formula of “The Big Chill” — now ready for a 40th reunion itself — this world premiere production, directed by Eric Ting, would have been not much more than sentimental and funny. Instead, invoking the litany of violence and disaster that has punctuated the lives of its characters, for whom the Columbine massacre in 1999 and the Sept. 11 attacks were high school bookends, it is also a profound tragicomedy, or perhaps vice versa, about the reunion that awaits us all.
The border between worldly and otherworldly is porous here. After only five seconds of human activity at the start of the play, Death shows up — or really a psychopomp, that folkloric being, known to many cultures, that collects the souls of the recently deceased to lead them to the afterlife. Jacobs-Jenkins renders him as a wry, friendly figure who occasionally takes over the bodies of the other characters to explain what is happening beneath their jabber. (I say “him” because the first body he inhabits is male.) The rest of the time, he watches and waits, invisibly playing the long or short game, wanting to know his customers before they buy the farm.
It’s an odd sensation to side with Death, but we want to know these people, too. They are alumni of St. Anthony’s School, a Catholic academy in Washington, who have gathered on the porch of a home in the suburbs to pregame their 20th reunion. Each has struggled to achieve maturity or happiness or just a sense of belonging — a problem that was already evident in high school when they bonded as members of MERGE, a “multiethnic reject group” with a problematic extra E.
Perhaps that problematic E stands for Emilio (Caleb Eberhardt), a Berlin-based artist who “got tired of realism” and now makes what he calls sound sculptures. Apparently the most successful of the group — he has returned to the United States less to attend the reunion than to see his work at the Whitney Biennial — he is nevertheless the most profoundly disappointed. Also the most disappointing: unsympathetic in both the literal sense (other people’s woes annoy him) and the broader one (he’s unlikable).
I’m not sure Jacobs-Jenkins intended that; it’s a small misstep in a play that runs two hours and 10 minutes without intermission to spend so much time letting one character cycle through snit after snit. He condescends to Ursula (Brittany Bradford), whose porch he’s on and who has gone blind in one eye because of diabetes. He keeps looking for trouble with Caitlin (Susannah Flood), whose marriage to an older man with bad politics he sees as a continuation of her poor choices back in high school. But if Ursula and Caitlin try to avoid conflict, Kristina (Shannon Tyo), an anesthesiologist with five children and a drinking problem, definitively does not.
In a neat trick, two other characters — one who arrives unexpectedly and one who unexpectedly doesn’t — are both played by Bobby Moreno. It’s a lot to keep track of, and one of the play’s sneaky achievements is that, as you learn more about the group and its history, your grip on the truth weakens. No one’s memory matches anyone else’s; even what appear to be fundamental facts (that someone is gay, that someone is not) are in dispute. This makes for considerable humor, which Jacobs-Jenkins — with his ear for the snark of 38-year-olds (like himself) — renders faultlessly, and which Ting’s breakneck staging, never missing the details, amps to the max.
It’s a mystery of the fine writing and excellent acting that the humor does not squash but rather enhances the pathos surging underneath. When it erupts, it can be devastating. Kristina’s competence bordering on officiousness (she’s a veteran) eventually gives way, under the influence of the jungle juice, to wails of furious regret, which Tyo turns into a gorgeous aria. Caitlin, snappy but vulnerable in Flood’s vivid performance, willfully kisses someone “for old times’ sake,” though she surely knows it can only cause heartache. Emilio, a bee caught in the jar of his own unhappiness, finally goes too far; he stings and pays the price. Only Ursula, though half blind, sees the others with any clarity or charity at all.
What she sees is that they have reached the time of comeuppance: “the age of poor choices seeking their consequences.” Death has begun to reveal itself to them, in the form of burnout, high blood pressure and other maladies. Yet death, in truth, was always lurking: “Columbine, 9/11, the war, the war, the endless war,” one character says, “then Trump, then Covid” — on and on. Having tried to live their lives according to their values as Catholics, artists or patriots, as the case may be, they are finally learning that values are not amulets against disaster.
In that way, “The Comeuppance” makes a nice companion piece to Will Arbery’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” another dark-night-of-the-soul reunion. Ursula’s front porch (designed by Arnulfo Maldonado) even recalls, in a cheerier vein, with ferns and wind chimes, that play’s bleak back porch with scrub and strange noises. Cheerier, that is, until Death, speaking in an altered voice that seems to echo itself, starts narrowing in. Then the lighting (by Amith Chandrashaker), the sound (by Palmer Hefferan) and the scary effects (magic by Skylar Fox) offer a reminder of what’s at stake.
For me, it’s a familiar if no less painful reminder: more painful, actually, because Jacobs-Jenkins delivers it more subtly than in his previous plays, many of which leave their traces here. From “An Octoroon,” you may recognize the meta-theatrical daring; from “Appropriate,” the reunion setting; from “Everybody” (a gloss on the medieval morality play “Everyman”), the desire to outwit death; and from the all-too-real violence of “Gloria,” the horseplay violence here.
Combining and advancing them, “The Comeuppance” is a richer and fully mature work. It could probably be even better at the margins. A few plot points I believe we are meant to understand get tangled in the underbrush of backtalk. And I wish Ursula, so compellingly played by Bradford, had more to do for most of the play than explain why she refuses to attend the reunion.
But even that pays off with a beautiful last scene and a brilliant final gesture. I won’t spoil it, but it involves one of Emilio’s sound sculptures and the gradual loss of hearing that all humans suffer. You shiver as you realize, yes, Death comes for everyone eventually, but in the meantime, he is robbing us daily.
Through June 25 at the Signature Theater, Manhattan; signaturetheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.