"Jack and Jill" 

By Jane Martin 
Directed by Rick Lombardo
New Repertory Theatre, Newton --- to June 7, 1998

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

All during the month of May The New Rep stage was the site of a small miracle.  Jane Martin's " Jack and Jill", a two character script that when I read it seemed to be a mere patchwork affair-- adroit and literate but dismissable; a shallow opus stitched together from skits using the most  familiar and/or  faddish fragments of "modern male-female relationships" and threaded through with misogyny--- is performed by Cate Damon and Marc Carver with such sureness of tone, such depth of commitment and lightness of touch, that it comes across the footlights as a kind of minor masterpiece.  Starting from type-characters who as written are defined as intelligent and self-aware-- perhaps merely in order to make plausible all the witty formulations and clever quips about the minefield courtship and marriage can be in these fraught times -- and taking seriously the comic dictum that it's easy for people surrounded by psychobabble to be too clever and self-monitoring for their own good, director Rick Lombardo encouraged his actors to work through the laughs and on to the lessons.  Rather than remaining the cartoon type-sketches that were all I could see in the text, Damon and Carver create a couple who learn from each other.  Some of the insights they discover in their dealings are destructive as well as painful, and there were times when watching the pair of them torture each other was so unpleasant that I longed for the play and the relationship to end.  I wasn't the only one --  when in the last minutes Jill pleaded with Jack to forgive her and resume their relationship, a man in the row next to mine said aloud: "Say no!"   The section of the audience that was near enough to hear exploded in laughter.  I laughed as loudly as anyone, but by that time I was so attached to the actors that I was terrified that our outburst would destroy their concentration.

It didn't, and  minutes later Carver and Damon basked in well earned applause.  Applause, too, for Lombardo.  I winced when I saw "Jack and Jill" on the New Rep schedule: why is he doing THAT?  But as with last season's "Sylvia", Lombardo knows his strengths and his audience's vulnerabilities. Powered by brilliant acting, these frothy pieces expand from the rather ridiculous frustrations of a particular privileged few to illuminate the value and cost of attachment anywhere.

Jack, already a wounded veteran of the battle of the Sexes,  falls in love with "Don't call me beautiful" Jill at first sight, in the library.  In spite of a chorus of repressive "shh"ing from the library's invisible patrons and cold shouldered silence from the object of his infatuation, Jack executes an elaborate verbal mating dance, and declares himself willing to change in whatever way necessary to win his unresponsive beloved .  (Whatever winning might mean, these days.)  Jack's eagerness alternates with self doubt acquired by painful experience-- he has some very funny lines where he tells Jill what he imagines she, as a savvy modern woman, must think of him and his come-on ---but above all Jack is persistent. He will court Jill until she realizes they were meant to love each other. Jill insists that love doesn't exist, that she has a life of her own in which there is no room for a man and a man's deadening expectations for the other gender.

Jill is the one repeatedly who messes up a promising intimacy by raising the red flag of political correctness or suspecting Jack's motives when he is only trying to please her.  But when Jill withdraws from Jack's engulfing courtship, Jack is the one who is given to generalizing from his frustrations with comments like: "Women don't want sensitive men.  Women want  men with abusive qualities moderated by charm".  Jack does most of the advancing and Jill most of the retreating, but sometimes Jack gives up and backs away -- and then Jill comes tumbling after.

Jill's tumbling, when it happens, is so humiliating and lacking in grace that it is rather difficult to believe that the play's author, the mysterious "Ms. Martin",  is really a female.  Jack and Jill are both plausible,  but Jill is an unmotivated hard ass, and Damon has to add smiles and vulnerable hesitations not indicated in the lines to keep the character this side of villainy. Damon also listens perfectly, even when the Jill character then must decide not to respond to the plea in Jack's lines.  Jill also must grovel, in a way that seems out of sync with the rest of her character.  Jill's basic, and realistic, self-analysis is that she is a person who  has superior intelligence and ability but no talent for loving.  She isn't upset by this, because her social analysis has convinced her that for women loving is a trap.  Jill bristles at any situation that requires her to act as if she has nurturing impulses that she in fact lacks, regarding this as a male plot to pin women in to the inferior "supporting" position, and she is very suspicious of Jack when he is upset or demanding but claims to be concerned only for her sake, or as a matter of principle. "What are you really feeling?  Right now?" she asks, accusingly.   Jill also accuses herself of being a selfish bitch, and unworthy of a man's love.  But she says it with pride, it's not a plea for sympathy.

Jack, on the other hand, when he admits -- moments before the wedding he has been pushing Jill toward since he met her--  " I’m a monster. I hate housework.  I’ll share the housework, but I’ll hate the person who made me do it",   is looking to be let off the hook.   Jill is supposed to respond with loving wifely forgiveness, and accept him flaws and all-- even though what Jack admits here is what she says she most fears.  Jack prefers "niceness" to honesty, and his pretending to be nice and pressuring her to pretend to be nice too will doom their relationship.  Jack's niceness is no bar to Carver's establishing an intimate relationship with the audience, however.   Everyone was inclined to root for Carver's Jack, even though that meant either Jill would have to have a character transplant and become nice, too; or Jack would to go off and find a nice woman who would love him just for the nice guy he wants to be.   

The couple's cross communication comes to a head in a spectacular dish breaking scene.  Jack comes home to find Jill systematically smashing the dishes.  He says wants to deal with the underlying problem, to get her "over' the frustration that leads her to destroy crockery. Jill tells him that her tantrum has nothing to do with him, that it is purely in response to pressures at work.  He should ignore it  - she'll smash dishes until she feels better, then clean up the mess and buy new dishes.  He can't ignore it, and she can't manage without expressing it-- so they must part.  Parting will break Jack's heart, but save Jill's sanity.  The easy comfort of like-minded companionship is out of the question for them.

That isn't the end of the play, however.   Jack and Jill meet some years  later, and the physical attraction and the emotional history they have shared draw them together again and again before their agendas once more push them apart.
There are six human beings on the New Rep stage performing "Jack and Jill", but four of them (Maura Matarese, Jenny Neale, Amy Rhodes and Ellen Stone) are "Changers", young women who in the tradition of the Chinese theatre assist the speaking performers with costumes and props and transform the set into the play's multiple locations.  The Changers' principal artistic challenge is to remain emotionless and as close to invisible as it is possible for humans to be.  The other two, Jack and Jill, are also quite attenuated characters who have no family, friends, politics, or religion. Their jobs are convenient exercises in self-fulfillment/self-definition .   This led me to hypothesize that J&J  probably began as a project where a pair of actors was encouraged to improvise scenes around the theme of "modern relationships",  and their blank backgrounds served to free them up to respond to whatever "good stuff" the partner came up with.  Jack and Jill are definitely  yuppies, however -- the sort of people who make up a very small proportion of the population but the majority of the characters on T.V. sitcoms, and are a younger version of the people who fill the seats at a suburban theatre like the New Rep. Martin's comic lines give evidence of a  literary sensibility, one given to wordplay and layers of allusion, working in concert with actors who improvise on the theme.  The experience is general, but the lines and the behavior wind up being very particular.  The scenarios for the scenes are beautifully chosen, perfect vessels for the actors' art.  Carver and Damon start with what amounts to a blackout sketch, a broad outline, then they pour in enough depth and detail to make these  people worth knowing.  They create between them a few instances of intense intimacy, and enough other instances of flustered good intention or aching vulnerability so that at the center of the piece is an image or platonic ideal of conjugal love by which all the rest is measured and adjudged foolish or sad. Jack and Jill's archetypal male-female relationship plays out against a fluidly shifting impersonal background of all the "issues" foregrounded by Feminism ---well represented by versatile gray modules of Janie Fliegel  's set, which springs to life under the warmth and specificity of John Malinowski's lighting.