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Theatre in Review: Benny and Joon (Paper Mill Playhouse)

Hannah Elless, Bryce Pinkham. Photo: Jim Fox, courtesy of The Old Globe.

Bryce Pinkham's skill at embodying characters who are lost, lonely, deeply eccentric, or just plain weird is put to excellent use in Benny and Joon. As Sam, a rather strange young fellow who models his sartorial style on Buster Keaton (right down to the porkpie hat), he executes the most fantastical acts with such conviction and dedication to detail that he all but convinces one that fey creatures such as he walk the earth. First seen riding a toy train across the Paper Mill stage, Sam is sufficiently shy that he spends much of his free time sitting in a tree; in his dealings with his fellow humans, he communicates entirely through bits of comic business: He charms with origami, turning paper into birds. Engaged as a kind of housekeeper, he speeds through the house on roller blades, armed with a feather duster and a Walkman. Like a modern-day silent comedian, he bends the world to his uses, making grilled cheese sandwiches with an iron, cooking up popcorn in the clothes dryer, and, seated at diner counter, recreating Charles Chaplin's "Oceana roll dance" from The Gold Rush. Not that he is entirely silent; he is also ready to join in a fanciful duet about the tragic lot of raisins. And a conversation with him is a guided tour through film history, as he channels everyone from Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke ("What we got here is a failure to communicate") to Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers, and Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights. Imposingly tall, with a pair of eyes that pop like ping-pong balls and flowing locks that appear to have only just recently survived a windstorm, he very nearly transforms this collection of tics and shticks into a plausible human being.

Not that he is getting any help from his writers. Sam, we are told, has "been through a lot -- verbal abuse, abandonment," but Kirsten Guenther's book is hard-pressed to explain how such terrible experiences have bred this refugee from a lesser Cirque du Soleil tour. People who have suffered the kind of treatment ascribed to Sam don't necessarily turn into accomplished weirdos gifted with unusual sensitivity and insight into others; they're usually basket cases, destructive to themselves and anyone in their orbits. He is a product of the tired 1960s notion that people with mental or emotional problems are really holy fools, sent to heal those "normal" folk who have lost touch with the wonder of life. (I attribute this charming bit of deception to the Philippe De Broca film King of Hearts, which was big on college campuses fifty years ago, but there are many other examples.) Thanks to Pinkham's skill, it's possible to enjoy Sam's antics while never for a second accepting the reality of his character.

Sam is also at odds with the musical that contains him. The title characters of Benny and Joon are youngish adult siblings living in a state of arrested development that is quietly strangling them both. When Benny was eighteen and Joon still a girl, their parents were killed in a car accident. Joon, an artist of sorts, is "a high-functioning schizophrenic" with an obsessive dedication to her daily regimen and a penchant for wandering into the street, wearing a scuba mask, and attempting to direct traffic. (The script suggests, without quite saying so, that the trauma of the accident drove Joon around the bend, a facile explanation at best for severe mental illness.) Benny, who runs an auto repair shop, is burdened with being his sister's keeper -- in his early thirties, he has no personal life, nor any prospect of one. It's all he can do to keep Joon from driving away yet another housekeeper with her antics.

Benny and Joon isn't overly concerned with reality -- these characters seem to have no money problems and endless access to health care -- but as it progresses, it does probe the mixture of love and resentment that holds the siblings together, even as Benny faces pressure to put his sister into a group home and Joon, feeling the stirrings of adult sexuality, takes the private decision to go off her meds.

Claybourne Elder, dressed in jeans and plaid work shirts, forever striking conventional male poses to assert a confidence his character doesn't really feel, conveys Benny's essential good-heartedness, as well as his sense of being utterly overwhelmed by a life he never chose; he has a delightful chemistry with Tatiana Wechsler as the diner waitress who will find a way into his heart, if only room can be found. As Joon, the rangy, angular Hannah Elless performs each task, whether gluing sequins onto her latest art project or savaging her beloved brother with a few home truths, with the same fierce concentration that signals exactly how different she is. (She is also nobody's fool: She aggravates Benny by making the random observation that "Jesus is a zombie," and when he tries to shut her down, she applies such implacable logic that he is forced to concede the point.) Much of the plot is driven by Joon and Sam's budding romance -- a prospect that fills Benny with a mixture of terror and jealousy -- and the action turns surprisingly furious for a musical that previously has treated mental illness as a source of quirky comedy. (It probably won't help the cause of clarity if I point out that Joon ends up with Sam after having lost a poker game, but that's the kind of show this is.) Even here, however, Sam keeps intruding to jarring effect; a climactic confrontation between the siblings, set in a mental ward, is interrupted by Sam, in a harness, dangling outside the window, precariously, to woo Joon.

Most of these problems were built into the source material, the 1993 film -- starring Aidan Quinn, Mary Stuart Masterson, Johnny Depp, and Julianne Moore as Benny, Joon, Sam, and Ruthie, the waitress -- but musicalizing it accentuates them. (The musical retains the early-nineties time frame; the absence of smartphones and social media makes the past seem like a lost paradise.) Elaborating Sam's eccentricities -- admittedly all of them crowd-pleasers -- only underscores the fact that he is an alien visitor from a separate musical comedy universe, out of place in a show devoted to examining the hopes and sorrows of ordinary people. He is a refugee from a 1930s clown show, loaded with sight gags and one-liners, and his presence keeps Benny and Joon in a perpetually unsettled state, stranded between a surgical examination of broken hearts and a slapstick romantic comedy. The score suffers from the same split personality. The most attractive numbers -- an engaging scene-setter titled "This, This, This;" "Dinner and a Movie," a quartet for two pairs of tentative lovers; and a lovely, introspective ballad for Ruthie called "You Meet a Man" -- have a light touch and easy charm. Other, harder-selling, items like Sam's "In My Head," which begs rather too hard for sympathy, or "Man of the Movies," in which Sam crashes Joon's hospital room from the outside, are borderline grating.

That Benny and Joon goes down fairly smoothly despite everything is a tribute to Jack Cummings III's direction, which works assiduously to skirt the script's more mawkish and melodramatic underpinnings. In addition to the principals, there are also nice contributions from Natalie Toro as Joon's sympathetic therapist and Colin Hanlon, Paolo Montalban, and Jacob Keith Watson as Benny's Greek chorus of bros. This is not a dance show, but the choreographer, Scott Rink, has provided some clever movement bits, including a pickup baseball game that ends with a nifty stage slide into home.

There's a lot to like in Dane Laffrey's set design, which is dominated by a backdrop depicting an aerial view of Benny and Joon's neighborhood; Laffrey's costumes also conjure a time frame just far enough from today to constitute a distinctly different period. R. Lee Kennedy's lighting and Kai Harada's sound design are solidly professional contributions.

Benny and Joon has its offhand, off-the-cuff charms, but it is saddled with a too-sunny attitude about mental illness and a principal character who is spun out of pure celluloid. Even fairy tales need a kernel of truth if they are to be believed; this one has a prince who, despite a fine performance, tries too hard to be charming. -- David Barbour

(16 April 2019)

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