The Comeuppance review – eloquence, tension and wit in a dysfunctional reunion drama

<span>Exuberant exchanges … (l-r) Yolanda Kettle, Ferdinand Kingsley, Katie Leung, Tamara Lawrance and Anthony Welsh in The Comeuppance.</span><span>Photograph: Marc Brenner</span>
Exuberant exchanges … (l-r) Yolanda Kettle, Ferdinand Kingsley, Katie Leung, Tamara Lawrance and Anthony Welsh in The Comeuppance.Photograph: Marc Brenner

A group of former high-schoolers meet, 20 years on, to reminisce and reconnect – or that’s the idea, anyway. Instead they end up drinking, fighting and ruing the disappointments of their middle-aged lives. What looks like a typical American reunion drama is – finally! – a thoughtful post-pandemic play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

Big politics beyond the losses of Covid – America’s part in recent wars, 9/11, the storming of the Capitol, gun crime – are embroidered into the personality contests and back-stories to explore memory, millennial malaise and modern American history under the shadow of death. A US flag hangs on one side of the porch on which this pre-reunion (before the bigger party) takes place and it looks like a subtle accusation of unquestioned nationalism rather than an endorsement.

In high school, this group was united by their outsider status. Now there is a competitive edge to what they have, and have not, accomplished. Among them is Ursula (Tamara Lawrance), hampered by ill health and an eyepatch that the others whisper about; Caitlin (Yolanda Kettle), stuck in the doldrums of married life; and Kristina (Katie Leung), an anaesthetist juggling hectic motherhood. Warmth turns to teasing, and then the cracks start to show, with Emilio (Anthony Welsh) and Paco (Ferdinand Kingsley), the men among them, in clear competition.

In some respects, the play follows in the fine American tradition of a family dysfunction drama, in the tragicomic mould of Tracy Letts. This once tight-knit group have the love/hate dynamic of a family with the same disputed memories and bonds that can never be broken, it seems.

The two men have the most meaningful tension: Emilio, an artist, is the most successful of the group and is bullied for it by the others, while Paco – an outsider to this outsiders’ club – has a military history that triggers seizures. The fits are never fully explained but hang in the air with other ambivalences, from characters’ sexualities to secret loves and violations (there is one accusation of rape).

Under the direction of Eric Ting, fights between friends bring shocks and exuberant exchanges. But the production never becomes quite savage enough; the unleashing of rage seems a little polite. It is in the last scenes, with fewer characters on stage, that it feels more full-bodied and intense.

In a twist, the naturalism of the “reunion” format meets supernaturalism with pauses in which the figure of Death rears its head, speaking with a sinister vocal reverb as if it were a modern, alien version of The Seventh Seal’s Grim Reaper. These interludes build dread and we head toward a ghoulish denouement that never quite arrives.

Related: Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins: ‘I’ve stopped needing to ask for permission’

Jacobs-Jenkins’ previous play, Appropriate, mixed family dysfunction with gothicism to stunning effect, but its stakes (America’s history of slavery) were higher, its family more charged with hurt and anger. Here, once too often the writing explains itself when it is rich and alive enough not to need to do so. Yet some scenes flare with subtle brilliance – such as the end, which features the play’s two Black characters alone, speaking in a different, more unguarded and intimate tone.

Even with its off notes, The Comeuppance is good theatre with eloquent outbursts and awkward wit. Its themes play in the mind after the curtain comes down and it is a relief to see theatre dealing with the Covid years, staring its death in the face.

Until 18 May