By Stanford Friedman
There are much worse things in life than sitting in a small theater while the lovely Kate Baldwin sings out a selection of ballads, backed by piano and cello. However, Baldwin, and her equally charismatic co-star Conor Ryan, sometimes seem to be palpably feeling the pain involved in performing the Keen Company’s revival of John & Jen. With an uneven storyline that is equal parts Norman Rockwell, Sigmund Freud and Santa Claus, and a score that fails to engage, the two actors work as hard as they can to put a shine on this rough diamond of a musical.
The first act is fraught with cliché and serves up a mini melodrama that offers little opportunity for us to become emotionally invested in the characters. Jen (Baldwin) is the older and protective sister of John (Ryan). We watch the 1960’s go flying by as the two grow up. John believes in Santa and then in baseball and then ultimately in serving his country in Vietnam. Jen goes the other direction, becoming an East Coast anti-war hippie with a fondness for recreational drugs. The driving force for their lifestyle choices is their father, a confusing and never-seen character who, from Jen’s perspective, is physically abusing John or, from John’s perspective, is teaching him to be a man. Jen has to flee, John has to prove himself to his dad. Jen is rewarded with a lifetime of abandonment-based guilt, John is rewarded with a military funeral.
Fortunately, the sins of Act 1 are the saviors of Act 2. With a backstory now in place, the story jumps into the 1980’s. Jen is now a single, overly protective, mom, and while that’s way too convenient of a leap, the character at least has earned some emotional complexity and gravitas because we just finished growing up with her. And the John in this act is Jen’s son who, by himself, is not that interesting, but because he is also essentially Jen’s replacement brother, and her opportunity for a second chance, the relationship get weirdly intriguing. And just in case someone has somehow missed the conceit that new John is in some ways old John, the writers throw in a song entitled “Just Like You.”
A good hunk of the show has the two actors portraying children. To their credit, they do not pour on the cuteness, but one feels sorry for Ryan, having to bring on the pathos while wearing flannel PJ’s and clutching a teddy bear. Baldwin, meanwhile, brings to mind a young Ann Margaret in Bye Bye Birdie, especially when chronicling her dating problems in the Act 1 number, “Trouble With Men.” Playing closer to her actual age in the second act, she gives the production its best moments as Jen finally reaches an epiphany about her real trouble with men and she belts out a killer rendition of “The Road Ends Here.”
Despite spanning roughly four decades, the show musically is stuck in the Richard Rodgers 1950’s, and obvious opportunities for some 60’s folk rock and 80’s go-go go unfulfilled. There’s little variety in the 22 numbers and there are many a cloying lyric, expressing sentiments like “Where you come from is no place like where you’re going,” and failing to find resonance in lines like “Welcome to the world.”
The set, by Steven C. Kemp, is constructed from large, overlaid geometric objects spattered with vibrant colors. It is a charmingly surreal canvas, but an odd choice for this intimate two-hander that explores familiar familial territory with barely a hint of abstraction.
John & Jen — Music by Andrew Lippa; lyrics by Tom Greenwald; book by Mr. Greenwald and Mr. Lippa; directed by Jonathan Silverstein
WITH: Conor Ryan (John) and Kate Baldwin (Jen).
Sets by Steven C. Kemp; costumes by Sydney Maresca; lighting by Josh Bradford; sound by Julian Evans; props by Ricola Wille and Julia Moreno; production stage manager, Kara Kaufman; orchestrations by Jason Robert Brown; music director, Lily Ling; musical staging by Christine O’Grady. Presented by Keen Company, at the Clurman Theater at Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street; 212-239-6200, www.keencompany.org. Through April 4. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.