New Review: Juan and John

Photo Credit: Jason Adams
Photo Credit: Jason Adams

For Back Stage.

Here’s the review:

Story continues below.

The brawl between the Dodgers and the Giants on Aug. 22, 1965 was ignited, depending on which version one prefers, by pitcher Juan Marichal whacking catcher Johnny Roseboro on the head with a bat, or earlier, when Roseboro returned a ball to pitcher Sandy Koufax by grazing Marichal’s ear, or earlier still, when Marichal threw “brush-back” pitches. Whatever you believe, Roger Guenveur Smith, in his fascinating if flawed new solo play “Juan and John,” recalls the events of that day as a crucible in his love of the national pastime. Reconstructing the fracas provides him with context for a personal, caustic look at race relations, the seductiveness of human revenge, and the ability of man to forgive.

Reuniting with sound and video designer Marc Anthony Thompson, with whom he successfully collaborated on “A Huey P. Newton Story,” Smith combines cultural imagery on a projection screen with oral memoir to fashion a double helix of narrative. How Marichal and Roseboro evolved from enemies into friends is paralleled in well-rendered memories from Smith’s youth and adulthood. We see a school paper he wrote as a teen. We learn about the end of his marriage and how he conveys the news to his daughter. He cannily explains how his lawyer father leveraged the civil-rights movement to advance his business interests and where the two of them were during the 1965 Watts riots in L.A. It all adds up to a textured but nonlinear journey. Still, we trust Smith because he earns it early on, cleverly engaging the audience by testing its knowledge of 1960s baseball. (Smith seemed amused by how much people knew.)

Though this dialogue brings us along, it isn’t the piece’s first action. That is a high-speed montage of images from the Eisenhower and Johnson eras, ending with Smith sitting upright, screaming aloud. It’s a jolting moment that communicates a warning: Smith will be-and is-as emotional as he likes throughout the piece. He tears up regularly as he applies the insights of his adulthood to the lessons of his youth. Whether drifting to the subjects of Vietnam or Afghanistan or expertly playing both Marichal and Roseboro, Smith lets his feelings stay right on the surface-like those hotheaded baseball players on that fateful August day.

Should “Juan and John” involve more than Smith, Marichal, and Roseboro? Of course! By wearing his senses on his sleeve, Smith makes our emotional engagement optional when it ought to be demanded. Holding back just a bit, Smith might allow us, too, a vigorous swing at the plate.

Presented by and at the Public Theater as part of Public LAB, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Dec. 13-20. Tue., 7 p.m.; Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m. (212) 967-7555 or Public Theater casting by Jordan Thaler, Heidi Griffiths.