A rewritten 'John and Jen' feels like a missed opportunity
The Southwark Playhouse's smaller second stage makes a fitting attic. Natalie Johnson's set is simultaneously cramped and expansive, a naturalistically cluttered backdrop packed with boxes and lovingly detailed detritus of a suburban American life from 1980 to the present, a fit for the intimacy of the venue (which is perhaps unfortunately cramped—there is no distancing in place, and masks are not required).
Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald's two-person musical about the changing relationship between a brother and sister originally debuted in 1995, and the play's plot points have been shifted forward from catalyzing around the Vietnam War to 2001 and the American war in Iraq. This explains the lack of specificity in the politics, which seriously undermines the show's ability to express any nuance about the events it depicts, or to allow its characters to seem genuinely rooted in their time period. The show strives to be a collage-esque chamber musical — I frequently found myself thinking of The Last Five Years and Fun Home, which much more successfully attempt a musical musing on the intersections of past and present — but the effect is rushed and disjointed.
We leap decades between songs, and there is never time to settle in or deal with the emotions raised by one song before we're shuttled along to the next. The result is that the characters seem to change not because of one another, or due to choices they make in their lives, but simply because of the relentless and inevitable passage of time.
The second act is far superior to the first, gesturing at a compelling and complicated story about how unresolved grief for her lost brother risks poisoning the titular Jen's relationship with her son — but again, the determination to take a whistle-stop tour of the characters entire lives rather than fully exploring any given conflict or turning point means the effect is an intellectual understanding of what the show is doing rather than an emotional experience of it.
Rachel Tucker plays Jen throughout her life, while Lewis Cornay plays both Johns, brother and son. Both have bright, classic musical theatre voices, which suit Lippa's habit of falling back on traditional-feeling patter and layering counterpoints to convey the siblings' parallel stories. They are done a disservice by the play's limited casting, as both seem much more comfortable when playing their own age (Tucker must spend the entire first act as a teenager, Cornay spends a long time playing both Johns under age twelve), and thus don't really get to fully shine until late in the second act.
All in all, it feels like a production that shows too much of its work: it's obvious what it's trying to do with its casting, its structure, director Guy Retallack's alternatingly naturalistic and surreal staging, but none of it genuinely connects. Given that the time was taken to do a partial rewrite, it feels even more like a missed opportunity.
Photo credit: Rachel Tucker and Lewis Cornay in John and Jen (Photo by Danny Kaan)
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