Amanda Rose and Jenny Peirsol in ‘Dear Jane.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)
Just so you’ll know it’s not an error, the comma dangling at the end of the title of Joan Beber’s confused mishmash of a play is printed that way on the program’s cover and credits page. I wish I could banish the play as easily as I will that comma.
Dear Jane, is an impressionistic memory play, with several markers suggesting autobiographical elements. Beber had her first play, In Bed with Roy Cohn, produced in Los Angeles five years ago, when she was 73 (it arrived in New York in 2015). Julie, Dear Jane,’s central character, ranges in the action, which goes back and forth in time, from eight to eighty-three. All the other principals also vary in age according to the play’s hashed-up structure; Julie’s announcement of each scene’s year is our only clue to how old the people in it are.
The principals wear the same clothes throughout and, except for childish attitudes when they’re kids, barely alter their behavior to reflect their age. Further, some scenes are only a few seconds long before the action jumps forward or backward—even by a couple of years. In consequence, it’s not long before you find yourself preoccupied with connecting the dots between the when and the what of the frail, constantly shifting narrative.
Beber, a poet, painter, installation artist, and performance artist, sets the play in a rehearsal room (designed by John McDermott) with theatrical elements, including a piano and costume racks, scattered about. What we’re seeing, then, is a run-through of a play in progress.
The Omaha-born Julie, played by Jenny Piersol, whom I’d take to be in her 20s, sits at an upstage table writing the play—essentially, a play-within-a-play—on a laptop or rises to act in or direct it. The other actors, who cover both minor and principal roles, lounge around the stage’s perimeter while waiting for their entrances; occasionally, the play proper stops so we can watch them play actors taking a break.
Julie shares Beber’s artistic aspirations and talents, especially painting; a considerable number of brightly colored abstract paintings are projected (thanks to Gertjan Houben) on a huge canvas backdrop, placed askew to rest on one corner.
Julie’s memories are provoked by the death of her twin sister, Jane (Amanda Rose), who, early on, emerges as a beautiful young woman with great hair from a very literal coffin (completely at odds with the play’s less literal scenic methods). She then stands around and shadows Julie’s scrambled recollections. These involve Julie’s daughter, Jill (Santina Umbach); her artsy grandchildren, Nina (Holly Cinnamon) and Jaxon (Brandon Timmons); her abusive boyfriend, Roger (Michael Romeo Ruocco); and Tommy (Jon Kovach), a convicted murderer in whose innocence Julie believes and whose case is part of an award-winning documentary made by Jane. (Beber’s father was an attorney who fought to exonerate Ethel Rosenberg in the 1950s.)
Whatever plot there is has to be pieced together from the shards of Julie’s life flying by in countless bits and pieces, reflecting her issues of sibling love and rivalry, parent-child frictions, marital and romantic problems, agoraphobia, search for enlightenment (including a Hare Krishna cult and EST-like meditation), artistic career, a late-life return to college, and, among other things, her fight to save Tommy from being executed.
The effect is of a mosaic, almost as if the playwright scattered a lifetime of photos on the floor, picked them up at random, and tried to encapsulate each in a dramatic moment, regardless of its place on a linear timeline. Unfortunately, very little is particularly dramatic, the characters are too vaguely conceived for audience empathy (we sometimes can’t even tell if they’re living or dead), and scenes frequently end almost before they’ve started. This “now you see it, now you don’t” approach creates so few opportunities for emotional development that the production’s lack of tension makes its 90 minutes seem twice as long.
Director Katrin Hilbe, who also staged In Bed with Roy Cohn, understands the play’s need for stylized staging, and puts to good use Gertjan Houben’s theatrically heightened lighting and Wendy Seyb’s choreography of brief dance numbers set to Andy Evan Cohen’s lively musical pastiches capturing particular periods. These help provide an attractive audio-visual component but do little to inject dramatic adrenaline into the actors, who mostly depend on quiet, small-scale naturalism. While the company is professionally competent, its material is so bland that whatever charisma anyone may have remains blanketed by dramaturgic pretension.
I guess that unnecessary comma says it all.
Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through August 26
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).