‘Every Brilliant Thing’ at NextStop riffs on reasons to live

Star Evan Hoffmann keeps guests gravitating between giggles and goosebumps.

Most shows require patrons to sit somewhat passively in the dark, in tiers, forming a berm of easy marks for actors to push their buttons or imprint upon. But Every Brilliant Thing, NextStop Theatre Company’s latest prophylactic for the blues, decimates that fourth wall by turning up the house lights and asking folks to speak up.

(Uh-oh. Audience participation isn’t your thing? Well, like it or not, theater has always been a participation sport. Don’t worry. It’ll be OK.)

Created by playwright Duncan Macmillan and British stand-up comic Jonny Donahoe and crowdsourced online, this dramatic comedy is billed as a one-man show about suicide.

Scratch that: The work riffs on reasons to live.

Not buying the “one-man” show bit, either, because every ticketholder (again, at every live show, everywhere) is a supporting, or at least supportive, player. Here audience members collectively form a support group, not only for one another and the unseen souls struggling with mental illness, but also to ease NextStop’s producing artistic director, Evan Hoffmann, back to the stage after a ten-year hiatus. Because what’s theater if not group therapy?

Evan Hoffman in ‘Every Brilliant Thing.’ Photo courtesy of NextStop Theatre Company.

Hoffmann, a naturally upbeat person, brings a dizzying energy to the role of a middle-aged man reminiscing about his depressed mother. When he learned, at age 7, that she saw no point in going on, he got busy creating for her a list, bulleted points of life’s pleasures, from No. 35, “birdsong,” to No. 253,263, “the feeling of calm which follows the realization that although you may be in a regrettable situation, there’s nothing you can do about it.” The list eventually grew into a life mission. A mission, it seemed, to preserve his own life.

Performing in the round, Hoffmann scatters about, constantly reading the room, showing off a carousel of talents. Dressed in casual-Friday blues, he’s part Phil Donahue, part TED Talk, with a tears-of-a-clown vibe. He obviously can’t numb his director chops while feeding the audience lines and bucking them up. Yet he must also flex long-dormant acting muscles, revved up for improv. He even pulls off a one-man-band interlude. Most of it done brilliantly.

Hoffmann’s biggest challenge seems to be emoting while always giving at least one portion of the audience his back. As his head whips ’round, he risks snapping the mood. All-inclusive contortions drift at times into over expansive.

Who has the nerve to direct NextStop’s fearless leader? Nikki Mirza manages to harness Hoffmann’s wide range, from goofy to glum, to ensure the pacing complements the material’s roller-coaster rhythms. It’s sentimental without getting schmaltzy. Hoffmann’s buoyant presence and boyish charm juxtaposed with the downer topic is what keeps guests gravitating between giggles and goosebumps.

Evan Hoffman in ‘Every Brilliant Thing.’ Photo courtesy of NextStop Theatre Company.

And, oh, the soundtrack. The protagonist is something of an audiophile and record collector, so stage managers Kylie Miller and Christian Sandidge lend emotional glue to mend any dramatic lapses — punctilious sound (to drown out annoying sound leaking into NextStop from next door) and indigo mood lighting as punctuation.

This production exploits the true white canvas of a black-box space. The Industrial Strength Theatre’s familiar stadium seating is sheathed, and the set doubles as guest seating: three large, inviting couches; clusters of orphaned box seats; and conference chairs grouped on low risers. Props are spare but purpose-driven — books, legal boxes, Post-its, an “Andre Agassi” tennis ball.

Interestingly, in the show’s promotional trailer, a boy who looks remarkably like Hoffmann as a child, with a missing front tooth, pings joyously through previews of the list. Turns out that’s his actual 7-year-old son, under the brilliant direction of Dad — a meta moment, as the play also spotlights father-son dynamics. It all serves to remind us it’s those magical moments that count, coursing through life like a string of stars, guideposts that coax us, stumbling, along.

In the time it takes to watch Every Brilliant Thing, seven people in the U.S. will have taken their own life — about one every 11 minutes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This disruptive play dispenses equal doses of enlightenment and euphoria, but it can’t promise to cure anyone’s depression. The trigger warnings abound: If you are too vulnerable to handle unsettling content, don’t come; if you find it uncomfortable, don’t stay.

But do come. Do join in. Put it tops on your to-do list. It will do you some good.

Running Time: About 70 minutes with no intermission.

Every Brilliant Thing plays through March 13, 2022, at NextStop Theatre Company’s Industrial Strength Theatre, 269 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon, VA. Tickets ($25) are available for purchase online.

COVID Safety: NextStop’s COVID Patron Safety Policies are here.

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