‘not Jenny’ Takes Painful (and Humorous) Look at Hurt People (4 Stars)

‘not Jenny’ – Written by MJ Halberstadt; Directed by Rebecca Bradshaw; Presented by Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston through December 15th.

Just in time for the holidays, the Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston introduces a world premiere of a work that demonstrates why this time of the year is so brutal for a lot of folks. For a significant segment of the population, growing up was not so much a ‘A Wonderful Life’ as popular holiday fare would have us believe. Warm and fuzzy memories of Christmases and childhood birthday parties past are as foreign to those people as a drunken holiday fistfight between Mom’s new boyfriend and Uncle Joe would be familiar. Which isn’t to say that those lives presently suck – it’s just that memories can be painful to deal with in the holiday season. One gets the feeling that new playwright MJ Halberstat may have had an up close look at some of that life, because he really connects a lot of painful situations into a coherent storyline in this cleverly told and often humorous new work.

The play opens with Not Jenny (Philana Mia) returning to her childhood home for the first time in 13 years  to see her fraternal twin Jenny (Amie Lytle), who is wheelchair-bound following a car crash that took their mother’s life. Not Jenny is horrified, having found out about her Mom’s death from a friend – well after the funeral – and has come home under the guise of helping to repair her family while she may have a little of her own healing to do. There is a lot of bad blood between the sisters that began right at birth, when the mother decided “in a drug-induced haze”  to come up with the clever naming scheme that intentionally or unintentionally set the tone for the screwed up relationships between the daughters and their Mom. Jenny would become the pretty, blonde, popular and dreadfully shallow girl that was Mom’s favorite, while Not Jenny became, well, not Jenny. Not Jenny was the serious one and – as the children of people with substance abuse issues and their associated behaviors often do – took on the caretaker role for the family, most specifically as a pseudo-Mom to her diabetic baby brother Jimmy (seven years her junior) while Jenny and Mom became best friends. There is also no mention of Dad in the story, so one surmises that Not Jenny is the family anchor, while Jenny reaps the alleged benefits of ‘favored daughter’ status.

While on paper that sounds like a win for Jenny, it actually greases the skids for her to follow in her Mom’s path of low ambition and bad choices with men. Not Jenny, on the other hand, leaves home right after high school, never to return (until now), and she becomes a successful publisher of a gay-friendly travel website.  The dynamic between the two sisters is played out in a series of flashbacks set right in the same living room where their re-union takes place, and really establishes the contemptuous relationship the two had growing up. The dialogue between the clueless popular girl and the “gloomer” (as Jenny dubs her sister) is especially effective and brutally funny – particularly in one exchange when Jenny chides her sister about her inability to attract boys, and Not Jenny responds by revealing that she is a lesbian. There’s another scene that effectively displays the childhood turmoil for the family when Not Jenny tries to cheer up 10-year old Jimmy when Mom forgets his birthday. Adam Lauver really owns the innocence of the ten-year old Jimmy, and is equally effective as the bitterly wounded 23-year old Jimmy as well. Mia and Lytle are also convincing in their dual roles of 17 and 30 year olds.

In fact, the acting is the real strength of this production. It is a ninety minute, fairly intense one act play and there were no false moments on the actor’s part, and that says a lot. Which is not to short the writing, which is funny and poignant and never slides into amateur analysis. I spoke with Lytle (Jenny) after the show and she told me that the playwright Halberstat worked closely with the actors during rehearsals and solicited a lot input, and the effort clearly paid off. If you’re looking to take a detour from the traditional holiday productions and want to look in on the warped lives of a family that doesn’t share your last name, “not Jenny” is the perfect show. For more info, go to: http://bridgerep.wordpress.com/about-not-jenny/