When I reviewed john and jen upon its debut in 1995—it was my very first online review!—I had the following to say, notwithstanding a little editing and swapping in the current actors for the originals.
There’s an artistic dictum that goes: the more specificity of detail a play offers, the more universally audience identification will take hold. Curiously, the reverse is also true: plays that try to explore universal themes with universal devices rarely have universal resonance. In letting the characters be general-everypersons, if you will, they are rendered unspecific...and terribly predictable. That's why the musical Fiddler on the Roof—about a beleaguered Russian milkman, his large family and his relationship with God—was received with world-wide acclaim; while the musical Rags about the archetypal immigrant experience in New York, bounced on the first weekend it could. Archetypes don't resonate. But Tevye sure does.
Which brings us to john and jen, a musical for two actors. It's a difficult musical to describe in detail without spilling its one genuine (and worthwhile) surprise at the end of Act One. Suffice to say that it’s a “time-line”piece that begins when Jen (Kate Baldwin) is a tot, and her brother John (Conor Ryan) an infant; and that it continues on for the next 40 years, ending in the mid-90s (which was the present at the time of the show’s original NYC debut). It takes its title characters through various phases: getting acquainted, surviving childhood with an abusive parent, going to secondary school, the pain of separation, when Jen leaves for college, the shock of reunion when they discover that each has embraced entirely opposite political and moral ideologies. As written, John and Jen are WASP children from the suburbs—there is no bigness to their characters, nothing iconographic, larger than life or even notably idiosyncratic. In a sense, they represent two case histories thrown together. Now, as I say, an end of Act One surprise does stir' things up, to, the extent that by Act Two, a third case history gets introduced into the, mix; that complicates the stew and begins to. make things a bit more interesting, by way of adding another layer. But because the characters remain unexceptional, john and jen stays implacably earthbound.
That said, Andrew Lippa has written sweet, very competent music, and Tom Greenwald adequate lyrics to tell their 90% through-sung story cleanly: no mean feat. And the show does have its moments, as well as the ability to engage its audience’s emotions when it counts.
Upon its 20th anniversary revival by the Keen Company, I find myself somewhat less grudging in my appraisal. I found the music far better than competent and the lyrics, if not always masterful, always efficient. And I found that the characters popped a little more.
Perhaps this is just a reflection of who I am, twenty years on; perhaps director Jonathan Silverstein’s production is superior (though I really don’t have memory enough to say); there is only one thing I can cite as unequivocally true, with no perhaps about it.
Kate Baldwin is its greatest asset. Not to slight Mr. Ryan, who’s perfectly fine (and physically [and in affect, just a little bit], puts me in mind of the young Jimmy Dean), but the strawberry blonde Ms. Baldwin is luminous, as actress and vocalist. In truth, she has always been thus, but her connection to the role of Jen, the maternal caretaker, is so authentic as to elevate everything and everyone around her. The best way I can illustrate this is in a moment that happened outside of the play, at the end of the curtain call. The set is mostly an abstract open space, with a kind of platform-ramp unit on the left, leading offstage, with a sharply squared off architecture at its lowest elevation; it wouldn’t be hard to scratch yourself badly on it. As she and Ryan left the stage, with her leading the way, arms at her side, she surreptitiously flipped her upstage wrist to point quickly at the unit’s most downstage corner; a private little gesture, just for her stage partner, but its clear meaning was Be careful, don’t hurt yourself on that, our exit path is narrower than it seems. The show had been rehearsed for weeks, its cast of two had by now performed it for audiences several times, Ryan’s familiarity with the set was unequivocal. Yet there Baldwin was, reflexively taking care of him. Rather than seeming a candid, out-of-character moment, the silent alert seemed an extension of where she’d been all afternoon (matinee).
And it’s one of those mysteriously resonant mental snapshots of an undoubtedly deeper kindness I think I shall always remember.
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