What’s the optimal time span of a play? The Aristotelian rules for dramatic structure mandate a single story, set in a single location, within the course of a single day: unity of action, unity of place, unity of time.
Of course, those theater rules are made to be broken—especially unity of time. For every Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, offering a single night of disunity, there’s an abstract wait for Godot, a sweeping Les Miz.
Two current plays, Every Brilliant Thing and An Infinite Ache, span decades quickly and efficiently: Every Brilliant Thing is 70 minutes covering an energetic and emotional character’s life from age seven until well into adulthood. Infinite Ache is 90 minutes spanning 30-plus years in the lives of a couple. Both adeptly draw in their audiences and tell complex stories with unique spins.
Every Brilliant Thing
Being human is hard, never harder than when life’s early years lack security. The unnamed performer in Every Brilliant Thing starts out as a traumatized seven year old describing the aftermath of his mother’s suicide attempt. To convince her of life’s value, he starts a list of every brilliant thing he can think of (number one is ice cream). Maybe if she sees his list—and him—she’ll be happier.
Daniel K. Isaac is the performer, and his sincerity fills the Geffen’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre, set up in the round for maximum intimacy. The character’s social awkwardness is offset by the contributions of audience members prepared in advance with slips of paper naming items on the list, or plucked from obscurity to play a role. This is a solo show whose characters rival in number those of the Scottish play (38).
Although started out of desperation, the list is joyous and observant. It grows and grows, well past the 14,000 Things to Be Happy About of the famous 1990 book. The list is life-defining, especially valuable when life is bleak and lonely. It beautifully integrates the music that defines the character’s parents and his own life, from Ray Charles and Billie Holiday to bipolar singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston.
Isaac embodies the optimism of his character’s brilliant list. He must have built up his cheek muscles to accommodate his persistent smiling. His friendly ways entice even the shyest audience members to play along. His positivity makes his reactions to the difficult times all the more heartbreaking. This character, embodied by the ideal actor, shows the power of soul-shaking love with physicality and psychic empathy.
Irish director Colm Summers helms with great sensitivity, bringing deep meaning to the moving script by Duncan MacMillan (written with Jonny Donahoe). A ceiling draped with crocheted afghans makes it clear: Despite the open talk about depression and suicide, this is a safe space, designed for comfort (by scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer).
Every Brilliant Thing is onstage at the Geffen Playhouse through Oct. 15. Show times are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00pm. Tickets are $39-129, available here.
An Infinite Ache
Anyone who’s every been part of a couple will recognize themselves in playwright David Schulner’s An Infinite Ache, now playing at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. From their first time going home together, Hope (Luka Oida) and Charlie (Miles Logan Cooper) feel familiar, yet unique. Are they compatible enough to see each other a second time? Do they love each other enough to get through life’s toughest ordeals and ugliest arguments? Are they committed enough to become a family? We’re given interconnected vignettes that build toward a mille feuille of a relationship: Layers upon layers, laughs upon tears.
Hope and Charlie start out awkward together, but hang in there, seeing enough joy in each other to get to the next decision point. Their pairing at times feels almost random, without the shared beliefs and life experiences that click immediately. Yet they stagger on, comparing his Jewish concept of bashert (fated for each other) to her Chinese myth of the great red string of destiny that connects two infants at birth.
Oida and Cooper build their chemistry over the course of the Infinite Ache. Even when the characters they play are going through a rough patch and not in synch, the performers always are.
Direction, by Mia Christou, reinforces the cartwheeling action that makes up both the couple’s relationship and its movement through time. While the marital bed remains a constant, the emotions of those in and out of the bed are anything but. Fights produce shock waves, then are forgotten, then rear up again. This condensed lifespan of love is beautiful and painful, messy and relatable. It’s a unique theater experience, superbly presented and performed.
An Infinite Ache, at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., runs through Oct. 1 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 7:00pm. Tickets are $35, available here.