nytheatre.com review by David DelGrosso
August 15, 2004
(Note: As no program was provided at the performance, and there has been no reply to my request for one since, I can only refer to the actor in this play as “the actor”.)
There is an intriguing play to be had in the dramatic pairing of John Wilkes Booth and John Brown. Each holds a theatrical resonance—the abolitionist Brown used terrorist tactics in his war against slavery, the assassin Booth sought regime change. Unfortunately, Michael Dempsey’s Two Johns is not that play.
This one-man show presents a young John Wilkes Booth trying to escape the shadow cast by his older and more successful brother, Edwin. Booth speaks not to us, but to himself in front of us, in a tirade of complaints. The expository style reminded me of an animatronic Hall of Presidents character coming to life: we are given facts and tidy summations as Booth reminds himself of important names and events. The script is entirely vernacular—Booth refers to his acting engagements as “gigs,” calls Philadelphia “Philly,” and once enters (as if coming offstage from a performance) shouting, “Thank you Richmond! Good night!”
After a great deal of time about Booth’s career anxiety, the second John enters the evening. Booth witnesses the execution of John Brown and, well, becomes possessed by his spirit. And so the evening takes a turn. John Brown now speaks to us through Booth. Like the actor’s portrayal of Booth there is no attempt at a Southern accent, but instead a kind of affected, Jacob Marley ‘I AM DEAD’ sound which will differentiate the two characters. And, being dead, Brown has gained the power to see into the future. This allows Brown to start with some details of his life and times but then proceed to sound off on contemporary issues. Brown does not say much about slavery—the issue that he gave his life to oppose—before it is time to talk about irregularities in Florida, 41 shots, and “Mission Accomplished.” In the flurry I missed how John Lee Malvo and John Walker Lindh are involved, but I know they were mentioned. Like a Sunday morning news pundit, there doesn’t seem to be a single topic that the spirit of John Brown isn’t ready to discuss.
After being possessed by John Brown, Booth becomes inspired to write and perform a John Brown play. When no one wants to produce the play, another visit from John Brown’s spirit seems to provide Booth with the courage he needs to shoot the President. Though the evening ends with Booth’s miming his assassination of Lincoln, we have not heard Booth say much of anything about that president or his politics. After listening to so much railing against the present administration (by details though not by name) it makes me wonder which President Booth is meant to be shooting.
The actor struggles valiantly with this script. Though I would have been more impressed if the script were not actually in his hands.