The play “Every Brilliant Thing” at Arden Theatre Company is a complete surprise. But the performance of Scott Greer, the actor in this one-man show that has plenty of audience help, is not. The versatile Greer, whose theater résumé extends to just about any sort of performing an actor can do, is giving what you’d expect: a rich, commanding — and genuine — performance as a man recounting the story of his mother’s depression and attempts at suicide.
While the piece by British playwright Duncan Macmillan (he co-wrote the unsettling “1984” adaptation on Broadway earlier this season) doesn’t exactly turn those themes into something like comedy — how could it? — “Every Brilliant Thing” is frequently humorous. Overall, it’s an hour or so of friendly yet fearless discourse from a man known in the script only as Narrator.
Macmillan’s one-man show was a sellout in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the mother of all Fringes, three years in a row. It doesn’t follow the general course of a monologue, even though it essentially is one. The script gives the actor playing the part — in this case, Greer — latitude for improvisation, one of Greer’s talents. He turns audience members into characters (including his father, a school counselor, a college prof and the girlfriend he marries after a timid start to their relationship). He uses others in the audience to read entries on a list his character creates of every brilliant thing he can think of. No one, I’ll bet, will feel threatened to participate. In fact, they’ll want to, because “Every Brilliant Thing” is so gentle a play and Greer, so inviting.
The Narrator begins by explaining the list he’s created. “The list began after her first attempt,” he says, starting off the show. “A list of everything brilliant about the world. Everything worth living for.”
He’s talks about the time he was 7, and his father picked him up from school, a departure from the usual routine with his mom. “I look at Dad and he says, ‘Mom’s in the hospital. Mom’s done something stupid.’” And so the Narrator begins his list, a hedge against this day.
It’s numbered, and includes ice cream, roller coasters, water fights. Before the show begins, Greer hands people in the audience slips of paper, each numbered and displaying an item on the list. The show is punctuated with these numbers, which the Narrator calls out. The person with the corresponding entry reads it aloud.
The narrator weaves stories from his life — the way it involves his mother and her illness or not — as his list of every brilliant thing grows and grows. As he matures, so do the items on the list, now a defense mechanism against his greatest fears about his mother’s intentions.
Any description of “Every Brilliant Thing,” which is being produced around the country, falls short because in this case, you really do have to be there. The show has a peculiar ambience encouraged by the conspiracy that develops between the audience and the Narrator. And in the script and Greer’s telling, it’s a simple, heartfelt story of little triumphs and failures, of ups and downs in health and spirit — of the stuff that makes a life. Greer is a charmer here, but it’s not charmed lives he’s talking about.
Probably the description most used for “Every Brilliant Thing” is “life-affirming.” Greer’s portrayal feels so real in the intimate space where the show plays, you’d swear the story is true. Terrence J. Nolen, the Arden’s producing artistic director, stages it in the company’s second building, a few doors north of the Arden’s two main theaters. It’s the first regular-season Arden show to be produced in that space, and is performed in the round and without a set. In Greer’s hands, it’s a gem.
“Every Brilliant Thing” has been extended through Dec. 10, at the Arden’s Hamilton Family Arts Center, 62 N. Second St. 215-922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.