Writer-actress Jenny Sullivan’s semiautobiographical chronicle of life with film star dad Barry Sullivan (1912-1994) and her mentally challenged older brother Johnny has moved to West Hollywood’s Court Playhouse after preeming last fall at Ventura’s Rubicon Theater. Playing herself, Sullivan achieves an admirable balance of humor and pathos in this memorable if overstated journey of self-discovery for a daughter who must assume complete responsibility for her institutionalized brother (John Ritter) after the death of her father (Jeff Kober). Production, under helmer Joseph Fuqua’s guidance, features a riveting portrayal of a clouded soul by Ritter, which is not quite offset by Kober’s too leisurely outing as the father.
Moving back and forth in time, Sullivan begins her tale in 1995 as the still-grieving daughter keeps her recently deceased father’s annual tradition alive by taking her 53-year-old brother John to Dodger Stadium to watch a game and fireworks display. In her mind, it gains some measure of closure to some unresolved feelings she has for her father. What she is not prepared for is the arrival of her father’s persona to guide her through a cathartic period of discovery, resentment and eventual forgiveness to let go of the past and to be able to express unconditional love for this man-child that is her brother.
The daughter’s journey begins with the subsequent discovery of her father’s journal, “J for J” (Journal for Johnny), which Barry Sullivan began in 1942 when Johnny was born. The passages, which are often projected onto Hugh Landwehr’s minimalist but creative set, flow between the daughter and her father, piecing together the family history, often giving the daughter traumatic information about her own life and the family secrets her father and mother never shared with her.
Her brother’s history is rehashed beyond its dramatic effect, often blurring the main focus of the storyline, which is Jenny Sullivan’s deep-seated hurt and resentment of her father’s inability to communicate with her. Along the way, however, the text offers intriguing insights into the mind of this Hollywood icon, who wrote insightfully about the events of his time, including a beautifully expressed indictment of intolerance and anti-Semitism.
Though he is seldom the main focus of attention, Ritter never fails to inhabit his role as the gentle, benignly accepting brother Johnny. There are long moments when Johnny is merely sitting to the side as Jenny wages her ongoing war of emotions against her unresponsive father. Though he never overtly attempts to pull the focus onto himself, there is an inner life exuding from Johnny’s countenance that is often much more eloquent than the rationalizations and justifications being lobbed back and forth from sister to father.
Kober does not fare as well. There are moments when his measured portrayal is so emotionless and unrevealing, his character practically disappears altogether.
“J for J” has the potential legs to move on to a larger venue. Though this legiter comes in at a compact 90 minutes, some judicious cutting and refocusing are still in order to better highlight this worthy insight into the lives of a Hollywood family.