The cast of Everybody. Photo: Monique Carboni

Taking his inspiration from the Everyman myth—a fifteenth-century miracle play one would find in the part of the Norton Anthology of English Literature where the pages still stick together—Branden Jacobs-Jenkins gives us a fresh take on the story with Everybody. Jacobs-Jenkins, a resident playwright with Signature Theater, is no stranger to this method. His controversial 2014 play Octoroon takes similar inspiration from an outdated text—a racist melodrama by Dion Boucicault about the antebellum South—and shuttles between the original work and his own new compositions. In Everybody, Jacobs-Jenkins transposes the plainspoken religious allegory to the present day, turning its critical light on cultural and political issues au courant (e.g., racism, gentrification, professionalism). If it were only an issues play, I would worry that Everybody was just another work preaching to the choir of socially aware Upper West Siders. Jacobs-Jenkins’s genuine desire to make us think about our mortal lives, however, makes Everybody stand out as a legitimately meditative work.

In the original miracle play, Everyman must meet his maker, and discovers by turns the insufficiency of various sources of support—personified representations of Fellowship, Kindred, and Goods—to endure the journey with him. Ultimately, Everyman must greet Death and the Catholic afterlife with nothing but his own Good-Deeds. Anyone who’s seen a hokey miracle play at a church or community theater will understand the appeal of a play so demonstrative in its morality. “O, to whom shall I make my moan/ For to go with me in that heavy journey?” Everyman asks the audience, when he discovers that Fellowship, Kindred and Goods won’t go with him. We can imagine Everyman shrugging his shoulders and raising his hands in despair, waiting for the children in church to shout out the answer. Similarly, Jacobs-Jenkins’s cast is seeded in the audience from the start; the actors continue to be both part of and apart from the audience for the rest of the play. Everybody preserves Everyman’s interactivity but also messes with it, which keeps it from being just an exercise in updating a classic text.

Jacobs-Jenkins brings Everyman into the secular age, replacing Everyman with the gender-neutral “Everybody,” and featuring a diverse cast, each of whom plays a different part each night. (A lottery at the play’s beginning determines which actor plays which role, which, barring extraordinary coincidences, means that every performance of the play is unique.) Jacobs-Jenkins adheres closely to the plot of Everyman for structure, which is a prudent choice as the play digresses and hopscotches around a little too much for its own good. The scaffolding provided by the original work helps curb the impulse to engage in over-the-top staging.

The framing of Everybody is at first imperceptible. A stagehand delivers directions about what to do in case of emergency and when to unwrap candies, then starts to chide the audience, then introduces the subject matter to be performed—all before we realize that this is in fact the play and she a player. Jacobs-Jenkins is fond of framing devices like this one. Octoroon starts off with a black playwright (Jacobs-Jenkins himself) in monologue explaining the difficulties and limitations of being a “black playwright” for a white audience. What follows is a reworked staging of Boucicault’s The Octoroon; Jacobs-Jenkins makes light of the breathy language of the white plantation-owners and the absurdly stereotypical slaves with an unnerving, uncomfortable, and very funny result. Jacobs-Jenkins, a theater wunderkind who by now has been awarded practically every major literary award under the sun—the Obie, the Windham-Campbell Prize, a MacArthur Genius Grant—has become adept at positioning himself in outmoded genres so he can address the present moment from oblique perspectives. In the case of Octoroon, his topic is how white fantasies about the nature of blackness became real when they were built out through language and enacted in the lives of slaves. In Everybody, the treatment of the original text is far gentler, since the Everyman myth does not offend modern audiences in the way Octoroon does. Consequently, the play’s rewards are quieter and milder, but they’re there.

As always, Jacobs-Jenkins’s greatest assets are his sense of satire and firm command of casual dialogue, which combine to create a digestible, slangy, and distinctly American mode. Thus, we see Friendship (Jacobs-Jenkins’s version of Fellowship) talk with Everybody the way people talk on the street: “Everybody!! Good to see you! You know that, like, I’ll always be there for you, right? And I would like, die for you?” The joy of these bits is the fill-in-the-blank, clichéd quality of the allegorical figures, a nice twist. Jacobs-Jenkins has a good ear, so his dialogue (“How’s your significant other and/or pet, Everybody?”) lands well. (Quotations are a close paraphrase.)

Clever directorial decisions also distinguish Everybody from its original. Stuff—an updated version of Goods—unexpectedly gropes and fondles Everybody, making literal the notion that material possessions have a hold on us. Love, an invention for the modern play, forces Everybody to jog around the theater as proof of his devotion, and the effect is uncomfortable and sadistic. Later, a dance of death, featuring large skeletons and a dizzying array of shooting lights, allows us to inhabit the medieval mindset that gave rise to the morality play. (Seeing these nightmarish figures dance for so long uninterrupted is particularly arresting in the middle of a casual-seeming play about modern problems.) No, Jacobs-Jenkins tells us, you don’t get off that easy. You don't just get to laugh at a funny bit about political correctness. There is Death. There is the afterlife.

This bait-and-switch is the merit of the play. For all the artifice of the structure and the lagging pace of the last act, Everybody makes us think. As the black director in Octoroon says, “Anyway, the point of this whole thing was to make you feel something.” Behind this bluff turn of phrase is Jacobs-Jenkins’s real contribution and talent as a playwright.