"Every Brilliant Thing," which premieres Monday on HBO, records British comedian Jonny Donahoe's not-exactly one-man show about suicide and depression, life and death, captured during its New York run in 2015. Not much has been done to the live performance, other than to render it in black and white and slot in an occasional extra visual (in bleached color, and usually something to do with vinyl records), curious decisions that add nothing necessary to the play but get in its way only a little.
The spine of the piece, written with playwright Duncan Macmillan ("People, Places and Things"), is a list Donahoe began at age 7, at the time of his mother's first suicide attempt – "a list of everything that was brilliant about the world, everything that was worth living for," kept both for his sake and, he hoped, his mother's.
"Things with stripes," "rollercoasters," "people falling over" and "kind old people who are not weird and don't smell unusual" were among his early entries; "Knowing someone well enough to get them to check your teeth for broccoli," "Hairdressers who listen to what you want," "The prospect of dressing up as a Mexican wrestler – and not, I should add, the action of dressing up as a Mexican wrestler" came later.
The list comes and goes in and out of Donahoe's life as he grows up and out into the world, growing itself to almost a million entries, if we are to believe him – and we do. Indeed, to what degree "Every Brilliant Thing" is the playwrights' construct and to what degree the straight truth (in the shape of a play, granted) is a question I did not ask myself until I began to write this sentence.
Donahoe, who works generally as part of the musical comedy duo Jonny & Baptists, is a sweet presence, an able storyteller and, to the extent that the script requires it of him, a talented actor. Rather than playing a multitude of characters himself, he assigns parts – a professor, a counselor, a veterinarian, his father, a love interest – to audience members, who also give voice to the various items on his numbered, please-don't-kick-the-bucket list.
Some have more complicated work than others – one drafted player might read aloud the back cover of a paperback, another improvise a wedding toast. Obviously, this will work better some nights than others, but their contributions here are funny and deep. It makes what, in more sober hands, might be a tough night at the theater into a sort of game, and knits the crowd, which surrounds Donahoe on four sides, into a community. (Reacting to one man's reading of the phrase "Cycling downhill," the star delightedly cries, "You made it sound like it was downhill – you go on the list too!")
The play, which begins a limited local run with Donahoe Feb. 2 at the Edye at the Broad Stage, covers a lot of ground, personal and philosophical and statistical, without becoming preachy or pedantic. It's plenty suspenseful, too – it takes a viewer no time at all to begin caring about Donahoe and the people in his world – and silly and moving by turns, and often at once. There is darkness, but there is also a piano in the family kitchen, and singing. The old critical cliché – "You'll laugh, you'll cry" – very much applies. But mostly you’ll laugh.
‘Every Brilliant Thing’
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd