Tree houses, Santa Claus and lots of sickeningly cute lyrics about aiming high and dreaming big. A brother and a sister playing school, and later arguing about sibling rules and regulations. Have we stumbled onto the set for a weepy long distance commercial? No, it's Theater LaB's warm and sappy production of Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald's brother/sister musical, John and Jen. A light note in the company's "Fascinating Women" series, John and Jen is the kind of play that skates lightly across family issues -- parenting, abandonment and empty nests -- in an attempt to create depth. Despite this production's tight transitions and well-established characters, John and Jen is never deep. But it is occasionally reflective, particularly when it comes to Jen's close relationship with her brother and, in the second act, her son. Director Jim Phillips has put out a nicely honed production; if it slips into cliche more often than not, it isn't for a lack of ambition on his or the actors' part. John and Jen is (in the nicest way possible) an inescapably sentimental play.
It begins on the occasion of John's birth, when we find Jen, six, both excited and protective. Her desire to protect her brother -- ostensibly from a lurking, violent father whom Jen hates and John loves -- is a thread that runs through the play. As John grows, Jen's protection becomes something he relies on, and something that comforts him. As the sister and brother, Elizabeth Byrd and Paul Nicely have a believable childlike rapport, but their finest moments come in portraying the conflict of adolescence (the rules, for instance, of attending a sibling's basketball game) and young adulthood. There are few laughs in this show, but occasionally the frustration of having a close sibling -- no privacy and little personal freedom, for instance -- ring true enough to tickle the audience.
Director Phillips's greatest fortune is the intimacy of Theater LaB's small stage: The audience, seated close to the action, finds it difficult not to empathize with Jen's frustration with her father and John's fear that Jen will leave for good. A central area serves as the duo's tree house, their playroom and the family living room. A tree covered in autumn leaves hangs over them, and a narrow wooden chest serves as a toy box, a bed and a coffee table. In this tiny space, the audience watches John and Jen growing up and growing apart. When Jen leaves for college, it's clear that she won't be heading back to suburbia any time soon.
This close connection to the actors isn't helped much by Greenwald's lyrics, though. They're thoroughly unimaginative and even dull, which is part of the reason it is impossible to fully engage with the play's characters in key emotional moments. "Sometimes you just know when you hate someone / You get this taste in your mouth -- like tomatoes," sings John about his occasionally bossy older sister. A quick overview of the song list gives pause to even the least ambitious theatergoer: "Think Big," "Dear God" and "Out of My Sight" sound more like inspirational speech topics than they do meaningful, evocative music.
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Things pick up in the second act when Jen has a child of her own, a son she tries hard to mold into the image of her brother, from whom she has a bitter parting at the end of the first act. Her slow realization of the cycles that make up adulthood, half spent looking back and half spent moving forward, is the most worthwhile thing this play has to offer, and Byrd performs the transformation well. By the end of Act Two, she presents a remarkably changed Jen, a hippie youth turned cautious single mom who's willing to live a life outside her parenting role.
A pleasant person to watch on-stage, Byrd gives Jen a warmth that isn't evident in the script. Much the same can be said of Paul Nicely, whom Theater LaB aficionados will remember as Matt in Poor Super Man. Convincingly gangly as a late adolescent, Nicely weaves hangdog humor through his character's sentimentality. Also playing the role of Jen's son (named, like his uncle, John), Nicely reminds us how children occasionally indulge their parents as much as their parents indulge them. Without his father or grandfather present for Christmas, young John predicts that his mother will want to sing a goofy song and perpetuate the Santa Claus myth. When she does, he gently guides her through the ritual, allowing her to believe he's still innocent. It's the play's best moment, though it's a fleeting one.
Despite Phillips's careful steering, John and Jen often lapses into the macabre. There are several scenes where Jen sings over a grave, pawing at the ground and railing about the hopelessness of life. There are only so many things an actor can do to save such a scene, much less a play full of them. We see all the tricks in John and Jen, and it doesn't make the production work any better than its deeply sappy script allows.
John and Jen plays through December 22 at Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, 868-7516.