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BWW Review: THE JOHNS provokes white men at Mildred's Umbrella

THE JOHNS from Chicago playwright Mary Bonnett was first produced for the author's hometown Her Story Theatre in 2013. It is a meditation on prostitution that mixes three privileged white men and three white women who learn the price everyone pays when sex is for sale. The setting for this regional premiere has been adjusted to Houston, but honestly THE JOHNS could be played out anywhere in the United States. It's a scary cautionary tale illuminating where we are today in regards to sex workers and the dangers they face being in the crosshairs of those with little regard for them. These are men who would "grab them by the p----y" and throw a couple of dollars their way.

The narrative roughly weaves three storylines to comment on human trafficking. We meet an affluent couple Chase (Sean Patrick Judge) and Grace (Sara Gaston) who are trapped in an icy sexless marriage. Living with them are two grown children including their son CJ (Bobby Haworth) and daughter Jules (Haley Hussey). He's in the process of dropping out of Harvard, and she is in her residency to become a medical doctor. Jules is all set to marry her artistic college sweetheart named Jacob (Benjamin McLaughlin) who is also living with the family. In stark contrast there is Babygirl (Shelby Blocker), a prostitute who is far too young, desperate, and willing to be anything the men want her to be. She lives in squalor in the seedier corner of the set. Babygirl has a fantasy mother figure named Betty Sappho (Miranda Herbert) who provides rock and roll commentary and advice only she can hear. Each man in the play meets Babygirl, and none of them do the right thing.

MILDRED'S UMBRELLA is the perfect Houston theatre company to bring something like THE JOHNS to life. Their mission statement takes aim at moving forward a cultural dialogue on women's issues, and THE JOHNS does that effectively. In some interviews I have read the playwright often indicate the show displays a man's point of view of the problem, but truly the entire evening is all about the ladies. The men are portrayed as weak, deceitful, and absolute slaves to their sex in both identity and drive. If this is a man's world, it's a bleak and dreary one. The women offer the only respite in the darkness, but they are quickly being dragged down into the muck by the men.

It's a dark comedy drama, and as the evening progresses the audience shifts uncomfortably watching exploitation followed by discussion of the effect of that. A cool way to lift this up quite a bit is the injection of Babygirl's imaginary mentor who is a rock and roll singer who accompanies all the action of the entire play. Singer/actress Miranda Herbert and the band Lone Star Hippie provide the soundtrack throughout the evening, and they impact the show giving it a jolt of cohesion and energy. Miranda makes a poignant "mistress of ceremonies" for the evening as she goes in and out of song and advice. The staging is tight and intimate, and the set is functional and garishly white with ticky tacky touches in each of the three areas.

The actors are all very strong, and as an ensemble do an amazing job of selling their world. Perhaps the bravest performance is that of Shelby Blocker as Babygirl, the prostitute who we find out more and more about as the play progresses. She brings a grace to the tortures, and gives a transcendent delivery of some of the toughest passages in the script. Haley Hussey plumbs surprising depths with her portrayal of Jules, and I admired her work greatly as well. Sara Gaston as the put upon elegant housewife is solid and appropriately desperate for attention. Sean Patrick Judge, Bobby Haworth, and Benjamin McLaughlin create men that the audience will hate by design by the final curtain. They embrace the immoral ambiguity of their gender so well and naturally that I fear they will have a hard time finding any women to be their friends after this run.

Overall THE JOHNS is provocative and luridly entertaining with a lot to ruminate over after it is all done and gone. The only trouble is it truly is tough on white men, and each one in the play has no moral center. They do not catch a break and in turn seem inhuman and monstrous. There is one extended monologue referencing "the Bro Code" which made me wonder if I had been raised the correct gender. This is a tough play, but one that is expertly done. Director Jennifer Decker has led the cast to an excellent level, and the staging is well realized.

THE JOHNS runs through February 24th with performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. on January 29th. The theater is located inside Studio 101, 1824 Spring. For information, call 832-463-0409 or visit Tickets range in price from $15 to $25

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From This Author Brett Cullum