'The Comeuppance' review – a high school reunion is stalked by death in this brilliantly acted drama

Read our review of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’s atmospheric play The Comeuppance, now in performances at the Almeida Theatre to 18 May.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Reunions are made for drama, as of course are birthdays and funerals, but there’s rarely been a commingling story as powerfully informed by mortality as The Comeuppance.

I first came across the American writer Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’s startling play last June in New York, where I was myself fresh from a college reunion that was, thank heavens, far happier than the gathering of high school alums depicted here. But nothing about its Off Broadway premiere prepared me for the far greater power of the play’s current Almeida iteration, under the acute eye of its original director, Eric Ting, benefitting this time around from an altogether peerless cast.

Death shadows us of course at every turn, and such is the case here. The lowering spectre of doom takes occupancy of the characters in sequence, which itself begs the question: when, and upon whom, will the Grim Reaper come to call?

We find out in a climax that packs a grievous wallop, as we get introduced along the way to the candidates for an early demise. The quintet – chums or maybe not, some of them onetime crushes or lovers – are awaiting a party limo booked to take them to the supposed festivities.

The play’s actual setting is the front porch of the remodelled Maryland home that once belonged to the late grandmother of the eyepatch-wearing Ursula (the rending Tamara Lawrance), whose diabetes has affected her eyesight and who in any case is sceptical of “this dark ritual of the soul” she deems reunions to be. (She’s the one to give voice late on to the play’s momentous title.)

While Ursula decides whether to venture forth into the world, the complexity of post-Covid existence comes crashing down on her stoop. We first meet Emilio (the excellent Anthony Welsh), a Berlin-based artist whom the others tease about his sexuality; the father of an (unseen) infant, he’s not great, by his own admission, at “the love thing”, and is on perpetual guard against life “feel[ing] small”.

Emilio once dated Kristina (a brilliantly full-on Katie Leung), a doctor with five kids and a noted aversion to the buttocks – a first in my experience in any play. The excitable Paco (Ferdinand Kingsley) is a live wire given to acknowledgment of the strangeness of “fire season” in LA and has his own problematic history with the unhappily married Caitlin (Yolanda Kettle, by turns funny and furious). Paco’s five tours of duty in Iraq have left their scars, and Kingsley suggests a smooth operator sliding into the abyss.

In lesser hands, The Comeuppance would dutifully mete out each person’s backstory en route to a tidy finish, but the author of Broadway’s current, and blistering, Appropriate layers the narrative so that each revelation forces a reevaluation.

Bravura, we discover, may simply be a way of masking fear as the characters each await their turn being ambushed in varying ways. An American flag hangs to the side of Arnulfo Maldonado’s expert set as a country in thrall to conspiracy theorists and political sedition makes itself felt. (Trump is never referenced by name but doesn’t need to be: these people are marinated in his seeping miasma of bile, whether they know it or not.)

As with Appropriate, the supernatural fuses with the actual to quite literally charge up the landscape, and Emma Laxton’s sound design and Natasha Chivers’ lighting contribute to the growing unease. But the result would be diminished without an ace ensemble whose real voices are heard, now and again, in eerie contrast to the pitch-perfect American accents they sport on the way to Armageddon. “We survived the plague,” notes Emilio, but at what price?

The Comeuppance is at the Almeida Theatre through 18 May.

Photo credit: The Comeuppance (Photo by Marc Brenner)

Originally published on

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