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  • Jonathan Kalb

Catch Your Death

The Comeuppance—now running at Signature Theatre in a stunning premiere production directed by Eric Ting—is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s most fluent and harmonious work to date. The play is about five friends who gather on a porch in the DC area to “pregame” their 20th high school reunion. It’s a sort of millennial twist on The Big Chill in which old crushes, betrayals and traumas are revisited as measures of who everyone has become, only everything in this gathering takes place under the watchful eye of Death. That’s right, Death—a thoughtful and anomalously considerate choral figure who inhabits each of the characters in turn, offering critical perspective and commentary. Death sounds an awful lot like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

I was surprised to learn in an author-interview that The Comeuppance began as a revision of an aborted script from many years ago. The play is rife with painful Covid experiences and feels very much born of interminable dark nights of the soul during the pandemic. All its human characters are about the same age as the author (38), and the creeping terror of middle age works as the story’s emotional springboard. Early on, one character who’s been living in Berlin dwells admiringly on the German word “Torschlusspanik,” meaning the fear of doors closing as you get older. This sure doesn’t feel like a revisited work of youth.

Jacobs-Jenkins is a preternaturally self-aware playwright. He once called his Obie-winning An Octoroon a “meta-melodrama.” His Everybody was a meta-morality play, and his Gloria a meta-workplace violence play. The Comeuppance is a meta-reunion play, but it differs from those other works in how it compartmentalizes its meta. Death’s commentary is entirely confined to soliloquies, which stand alone like Zoom breakout discussions, so the tenor of the action proper remains direct, personal and realistic.

All five character portraits are exquisitely drawn, and also acted with sharp, quirky granularity by the fine cast. Ursula, played by Brittany Bradford with the same focused gravity she brought to Fefu and Her Friends, The Wedding Band, and everything else she's done, hosts the party at the house she inherited from her grandmother, who died shortly before quarantine. Ursula has become blind in one eye from diabetes and plans to skip the formal reunion. Her friends worry that she’s becoming a shut-in, yet she’s clearly been keeping close internet tabs on Emilio, a successful artist played with eminently likeable cruelty by Caleb Eberhardt. Emilio has flown in from Germany to participate in a biennial he’s rather nonchalant about (at the Whitney?), and he’s making time for the reunion on the way. It turns out, though, that despite his worldliness and pride in escaping the small town, he’s more stuck in old embitterments than anyone else.

The other characters are Caitlin, Kristina and Francisco (nicknamed Paco). Caitlin is woefully unfulfilled. Played with wonderfully sturdy insecurity by Susannah Flood, she weathers a lot of needling from Emilio about having panic-married (after a bad breakup with Paco) a much older, right-wing ex-cop with kids. Paco, played with fierce, complementary insecurity by Bobby Moreno, is an ex-marine suffering PTSD, and Emilio, who accompanied Caitlin to multiple abortions back in school, is convinced Paco date-raped her back then. She still carries a torch for Paco, which drives Emilio crazy. Kristina is Paco’s cousin, played with amusing driness by Shannon Tyo—an anesthesiologist and Catholic in the military who spent lockdown coping with mass death and cooped up with her dull husband and five kids (“I have so many . . . fucking kids!”). Having forgotten the reasons she was ever passionately committed to “service,” she’s now a sloppy drunk.

There’s a lot going on in this play, which also folds history into its personal stories by reminding us that these kids’ high-school years were sandwiched by Columbine and 9/11. The pain of ethnic exclusion is there as well, as everyone except Paco used to belong to an informal group of honors-student nerds called MERGE (Multi-Ethnic Reject Group). These mildly political details aren’t just topical flavoring. The fears and group resentments behind them are deep-seated and profoundly formative experiences for all. Jacobs-Jenkins has a wonderfully light touch with these backstories, which will remind some of Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning. These splendid plays are bound to be compared, not only for their circumstantial similarities (both are about politically rooted soul-searching among old school chums) but also for their generational investigations.

Topicality aside, though, the distinctive beauty of Jacobs-Jenkins’s writing in The Comeuppance is to me the main takeaway. I’ve never seen his critical overlays so elegantly and movingly merged with the action as here. Death’s soliloquies are eloquent and strangely compassionate, operating as a surprisingly delightful foil for the realistic events. You want Death to return in the same way you want Thornton Wilder’s stage manager in Our Town to return, because s/he provides both a helpful moral compass and a breathtaking sense of cosmic scale to the human doings.

Death says s/he’s fascinated by people as “machines of will” and feels compelled to “gossip” about them (“their indiosyncrasies, interiorities and secrets”). But s/he also constantly offers acute perceptions and life advice. To wit: when people suffer strings of “small tragedies” they too easily organize them into “a bigger story” about, say, character flaws or fate, which can limit their perspective on the future. Also, suicide isn’t recommended (to anyone contemplating it: “I beg you, selfishly, to please reconsider”), principally because Death is inconvenienced by the “regrets” that result. Why we should care about Death’s feelings is left unexplained.

Death in this play thinks we should all get to know him/her better because that’s a sure source of wisdom (benefits include “lucidity, a greater patience for mystery, a sense of humor”). You gotta admit, that’s a pretty common idea, even a platitude, familiar from countless religions, gurus and advice columnists. The twist Jacobs-Jenkins gives it in this exhilarating play is to reinvent it as a theatrical truth, seen through the lens of roleplay. Just re-imagine Death in the person of your old girlfriend or boyfriend, or someone else’s—or even in the voice of your favorite playwright—and you might just hear wisdom you could never take in before.

Photos: Monique Carboni

The Comeuppance By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Signature Theatre

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