John & Jen is a musical by Tom Greenwald and Andrew Lippa that details the relationships between one woman, Jen (Kate Baldwin), and her brother and her son, both named John (Conor Ryan). The show originally debuted Off-Broadway in 1995, and is now revived twenty years later Off-Broadway at Theatre Row by the Keen Company, directed by Jonathan Silverman.
Baldwin’s performance leaves nothing to be desired, as she has all but perfectly captured the essence of each stage of life, from child to mother, and packaged it into a strong performance. Her vocals are technically and dramatically brilliant, and even left some in the audience wondering when she found moments to inhale. Unfortunately, her counterpart Ryan’s performance, though by no stretch of the imagination a bad one, paled in comparison. While Ryan’s vocal talent was fine enough, there seemed to be a disconnect between the fairly young performer and his two characters. At times, it would have seemed the two separate individuals were totally indistinguishable from each other. Both actors, though, brought an immense amount of charm to the stage. The scenic designer, Steven C. Kemp, gave an unusual and conversation-provoking set, and each of Sydney Maresca's costume designs seemed to be spot on.
Perhaps one of the most jarring elements of the performance was the almost nonexistent chemistry between Baldwin and Ryan. Whether it is simply a difference in the caliber of actors, the source material, or an off day, it is noticeable that the two almost seemed as if they didn’t enjoy each other’s presence on a personal level.
As for the musical itself, the first act trudges from John (Jen’s brother) and Jen’s childhood and adolescence in the seemingly innocent 50’s into the turbulent conflicts of political and personal ideals of the radically different 60’s, but does so neither with a particular sense of enthusiasm nor in a particular hurry. When the act ends with John’s death, it’s almost hard to care, as the characters have done very little to develop a relationship worth mourning. The second act brings us through the life of John (Jen’s son) with just as little enthusiasm and even less tonal consistency, adding in an unusual number wherein John and Jen act as daytime talk show hosts and point out every flaw in their relationship, despite having been stressed as a strained relationship to begin with.
The second act frames the issues to come when Jen gives her son her dead brother’s name, clothes, baseball, catcher’s mitt, and personality in an attempt to make reparations for the relationship so feebly established and demolished in the first act, whether he wants these things or not. For a two person cast, the two hour runtime is a very long haul, and eventually the songs seem to become very redundant, lacking strong (read: enjoyable or noticeably varied) melodies and strong (read: interesting and coherent) lyrics.
Overall, though Baldwin gives a remarkable performance and Ryan gives his all, their individual charm isn’t enough to save John & Jen from itself. Its poor pacing, forgettable songs, and overly long runtime make it a musical that could either use some long overdue rewrites or another twenty-year break.
Review By: Jacob R. Hines
Photos By: Carol Rosegg