BWW Review: NOT JENNY World Premiere at Bridge Rep
Written by MJ Halberstadt, Directed by Rebecca Bradshaw, Costume Design by SusAnne Miller, Scenic & Lighting Design by Juliana Beecher; Sound Design by Ed Young; L. Arkansas Light, Production Stage Manager; Sarah Schneider, Assistant Stage Manager/Rehearsal; Zack Dictakis, Assistant Stage Manager/Performance
CAST: Philana Mia, Amie Lytle, Adam Lauver
Performances through December 15 by Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston at Deane Hall, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.BridgeRepofBoston.com [$35 reserved seating or pay-what-you-can at the door]
Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston states explicitly that local playwright MJ Halberstadt's not Jenny is not a holiday show. The slight relevance that it has to the season is the homecoming of a long-absent sibling, but she is not returning for a celebration, nor is she bearing gifts. On the bright side, you may walk out of the theater feeling grateful for your own family history by comparison to the upbringing survived by Jenny, Not Jenny, and Jimmy Powell. At the very least, you'll be glad that this trio is not coming to your house for Christmas.
The play opens with Not Jenny (Philana Mia) facing her twin sister Jenny (Amie Lytle) after an estrangement of thirteen years. Following a fatal car accident which took the life of their mother, Jenny is paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. She doesn't greet Not Jenny with open arms, nor open heart; rather, she alternately manipulates her or targets her with invectives. Although she was the spoiled favorite child, Jenny harbors bitterness that Not Jenny left home to escape their difficult, uncaring mother and it eats away at her like acid. Add younger brother Jimmy's (Adam Lauver) grudges to the mix and the dynamics are explosive.
Halberstadt's world premiere is a dark comedy whose characters might feel at home in a play by Edward Albee or Tracy Letts. Although not as eviscerating as a conversation in the company of George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or the Weston family of Letts' August: Osage County, the dialogue is heavy with sarcasm and cutting remarks and light on warmth. Through a series of flashbacks, the back stories of the siblings and their relationships with each other are shown, revealing the basis for the complications that ensue when the long-lost Not Jenny returns.
Director Rebecca Bradshaw establishes a rhythm that makes the play flow smoothly back and forth from the present to the past. Lighting (Juliana Beecher) and minor costume (SusAnne Miller) changes do some of the work, but the ways that the actors inhabit their characters differently really shows whether they are their adult or adolescent personalities. Lauver is the essence of a ten-year old boy in tone of voice, mannerisms, and attitude as the younger Jimmy. He expertly portrays his fear of being abandoned when Not Jenny tells him she's going away, and, as the 23-year old, exhibits some of those same mannerisms when he feels threatened. Lytle sashays on two good legs as younger Jenny, sometimes brash, sometimes pouty, but lacking the razor sharp edge of her disabled self. Not Jenny hides her true persona behind a low key exterior, eschewing the prom that Jenny views as her natural arena in order to work on her college application. A baker's dozen years later, Mia's character carries herself with a confidence and world-weariness born of being on her own through a series of successes and hard knocks.
Halberstadt's play is primarily a character study and he develops them with depth and interesting nooks and crannies. Bradshaw and the cast crawl into every crevice to get at their truths and it ain't pretty. However, we don't see these people onstage every day and it is refreshing to meet them, even if they'd be dreadful dinner companions. Their damages are severe, but each of them strives to overcome their past in his or her own way. They keep coming back to the importance of family, regardless of its level of dysfunction, but I'd like the playwright to convince me that Not Jenny is coming home out of something other than obligation or guilt.
The non-linear format of not Jenny works for the most part, but Halberstadt tacks on a couple of scenes at the end that seem misplaced. Although the information that is imparted is relevant, they come after another scene that most people thought was the conclusion (a few members of the audience applauded when the stage went black). Had the play been over at that point when Not Jenny makes a phone call, it would be left to the audience to imagine how things turn out. With the additional scenes, the playwright doesn't completely determine what will happen, but he gives a pretty strong nudge in One Direction and I think the play would be stronger without them. Either way, Bridge Rep's fine production leaves room for discussion and underscores the value of family at any time of year.