Review: ‘Juan and John’

Roger Guenveur Smith digs up parts of the '60s and knits them together into a Frankensteinian whole.

in his solo show “Juan and John,” Roger Guenveur Smith digs up disparate parts of the 1960s and knits them together into a Frankensteinian whole. The writer-performer takes a hard look at the Los Angeles race riots, the home-front horrors of the Vietnam war, and an infamous baseball game’s sudden violence between the Giants’ Juan Marichal and the Dodgers’ John Roseboro. While Smith’s writing is impressively polished, his self-direction in this Public LAB presentation gives no form to his script; the overall effect is of an insightful play sloppily executed, even though writer, director and star are all the same guy.

Smith is best known for “A Huey P. Newton Story,” in which he covered the same multihyphenate duties to reportedly staggering effect. So it may simply be that he’s tremendously skilled at playing other people — his impressions of Roseboro and Marichal are fascinating — and not all that comfortable in his own skin.

Smith tells us about the ’60s as his childhood self, since that’s the way he experienced them.

The show starts off with him screaming at an imaginary television, on which his hero, Roseboro, is being beaten with a baseball bat by Marichal after a bean ball whacks him on the ear. After he ritualistically burns Marichal’s baseball card, the racially charged event becomes emblematic of the next few troubled years and of Smith’s own current struggles — the performer works his troubles raising his daughter and dealing with his divorce into the mix.

The modern-day dilemmas are interpolated skillfully enough, but it’s not clear what they have to do with the play’s historical focus. The whole thing is pretty diffuse, admittedly, but there’s at least a unified historical period around Smith’s childhood reminiscences, which he backs up with impressive research. When Smith tells us about his failures as a husband and trials as a father, he seems to be suffering a crisis of identity as much as a crisis of conscience.

And yet his performance is still charming — Smith interacts with audience members who shout out old baseball statistics, and he seems to genuinely value his audience. He’s a hard performer to dislike.

Regular collaborator Marc Anthony Thompson gives Smith an impressive video and sound design to work over, using photography, full video clips, and plenty of mood-setting sound effects. Justin Townsend also helps smooth the show’s odd tonal shifts with a smart, unobtrusive lighting design.

But the whole is manifestly less than the sum of its parts, which is frustrating. It would have helped things a lot if Smith had given himself a way to build the show up emotionally; since it starts with him explosively yelling and then breaking down in tears a few minutes later, there’s nowhere to go.

Juan and John

Public Theater/Shiva; 99 seats; $10 top


A Public Theater presentation of a solo show in one act created and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith.


Costume, Emilio Sosa; lighting, Justin Townsend; sound and video, Marc Anthony Thompson; production stage manager, Amy McCraney. Opened Dec. 13, 2009. Reviewed Dec. 10. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.


With: Roger Guenveur Smith.
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