THE JOHNSONS: a Comedic Nightmare Version of the American Dream

Photo by Ed Forti

In The Johnsons, a strange, funny, and semi-satirical family drama by Amina Henry, and the first production to grace the new JACK space through October 26th (now located at 18 Putnam Avenue in Brooklyn), things are not going well. The family cat has run off. There is a dead and naked grandmother in the bathtub. Mom’s burning through her pills, downing them with straight vodka. The local lighthouse has lost its light. Dad has lost his job and is now tearing up tiles in the living room. The ocean-side house is foreclosed upon. The youngest daughter is hooking up with an Icelandic fellow on his summer holiday. Her twin brother has taken to stealing his father’s glasses (“I see better with them on,” he declares, even though he doesn’t actually need them) and goes fishing every day in the boat that the family should probably sell, given their financial state of ruin. He says he’s fishing for whales, even though all the whales are gone. The older daughter, just returned to this Cape Cod family home after fleeing to New York, is able to see the situation more clearly than the rest of the family, but can’t figure out how to help.

Nothing here is a spoiler — much of it is declared near the top of show after that Icelandic fellow climbs out of a small sandbox that he’s been playing in while the audience takes their seats, and undertakes the role of sad narrator for the ensuing events. As wistfully played by John DiMino, he serves as a vital counterpoint to the bad-to-worse onstage progression, his speech heightened into a poetry of repeated words and phrases. “A family of Americans – They were the Johnsons – And they were weird,” he begins, with Icelandic accent. He wants to communicate something to us about all this, but seems unable to. Instead he reverses the sentences, trying to make them make more sense, land differently. The playwright Henry’s language use here is simple, stark, and funny, and provides a way in (or out) from the rest of the action.

Time passes strangely in this world. The progression of events seems to play out over a couple of days and an entire summer simultaneously. In the first scene, we learn that the family house (depicted onstage as a few gray flats with windows cut, and a free-standing screen door) is lost. This condition is then largely ignored for the rest of the play, as the father sets about to “fix it up” and instead deconstructs it. They’re so paralyzed by their situation that they can’t even decide what to do with grandma (the options include dumping her in the ocean and burying her in the backyard where the coyotes can get at her), and so it’s left to the youngest daughter to fill the tub with ice every day in hopes of keeping the rot at bay. In a really perverse way, we’re able to track time based on how decomposed she is, as reported by various family members at various points.

The rest of the uniformly excellent cast (Anthony Franqui, AnJu Hyppolite, Jeorge Bennett Watson, and Jehan O. Young) are sturdy bearers of the text, playing with and against the sometimes absurd given circumstances in an understated way that keeps the proceedings from getting too bleak to handle.

The line between intended disorientation and outright confusion is a fine one, and Henry and director Shira-Lee Salit straddle it throughout. There is a certain temptation to read the work as allegory (the father eventually paints “Fuck America” on the walls), and I felt like it was, except when it wasn’t. There are welcome complications, including a quick-flaring romance between the youngest daughter (played memorably by Amber Reauchean Williams) and the Icelandic fellow. He diagnoses the way she tastes as “innocent,” and a new, generational line of inquiry opens up. It’s not always clear what we’re looking at, but perhaps Henry is tearing down the house, family, and narrative form itself with hope alongside rage.

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