John & Jen is a lovely but mostly superficial tour of American life from the ’50s to the ’90s. Nicely performed and sung by Katie Zaffrann and Chris Crawford, it offers intelligent lyrics, pleasant but forgettable music, and a storyline so hurried that there’s never much opportunity to think about the momentous years it references. Subjects worthy of entire evenings — dysfunctional families, the hippie subculture, draft-dodging — are treated for just a few minutes, and then we’re on to the next scene, and the next, and the next. Still, Zaffrann and Crawford have ingratiating stage presences, their voices are fine, and writers Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald (who also wrote the music and lyrics, respectively) have their hearts in the right places. If there’s not a single original thought in the show’s 90 minutes, still you can’t help but be charmed by the love that the writers show for their characters, and that the characters display for each other.
When we first meet John and Jen, he’s just been born and she’s excited to become a sister. In the segments that follow, we watch them grow up together: here she is giving John a Christmas gift of a Louisville Slugger, here he is razzing her as she plays on her school’s basketball team. We learn, through brief remarks, that their parents are always arguing, and we witness her discovery that John’s been bruised by their abusive father. Jen makes it clear that she can’t wait to get away from home, but when she goes away to college, John blames her for abandoning him. They grow further apart when Jen turns into a headband-wearing hippie and John, trying to please his dad, signs up to become a Navy aviator. With the war in Vietnam claiming ever more American lives, it’s not a good career choice.
Act Two introduces Jen with a new baby — her own, whom she names after her brother. Soon Jen is a single mother with the dubious mission of turning her son (also played by Crawford) into a living copy of his uncle. Naturally, the boy rebels — complaining, for example, when she gives him her brother’s old baseball glove for Christmas. In a fantasy sequence that’s the high point of the whole play, we see Jen and the new John on various television talk shows, trying to defend their positions in an argument over identity and independence; and eventually we find John, having been accepted into a writing program at Columbia, as he chooses between his duty to his mother and to himself. If there’s a meaning to all this, I suppose it’s something like “Even real love has to face challenges.” If that sounds overly obvious, well, yes it is, and that’s the play’s problem. It knows that even the best-intentioned people face difficulties — and that’s it. No further insight.
Zaffrann’s performance as Jen is wonderful, though. Just a few moments on stage and she wins you over, convincing you of the great love she has for her brother. In the second act, she’s a kind of Everymom: deeply devoted to her son, anxiously concerned for his success, more attached than she wants to admit. As the two Johns, Crawford is bright and enthusiastic (when he’s not being ornery), but also somewhat generic. The most interesting thing about the character in Act One is his continued respect for his undeserving father — this may be unwise, but at least it’s idiosyncratic. In Act Two he’s a likable, middle-of-the-road Everykid: wants fun, freedom, and space from his doting mother. Eric Davis directs skillfully on Jerid Fox’s runway-style set, featuring newspaper pages printed on the flooring. The three-piece band playing just offstage is splendidly professional. If only there were one song — just one! — that you wanted to hear again.
Oh, well: pleasant fare, charmingly presented, not very incisive. Nothing to love or hate.
I just wish one of those scenes — say, the one where hippie Jen confronts military man John — had lasted more than a few minutes.