There are two love stories in “Benny & Joon,” the musical that is currently at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, in its East Coast premiere.
Joon (Hannah Elless), described as a high-functioning schizophrenic by her therapist, meets Sam (Bryce Pinkham), an eccentric drifter who speaks mainly by quoting characters in movies, and seems like he’s living in a world of his own. He sees no reason not to use a clothes iron to make grilled cheese sandwiches; Joon (short for Juniper) has no problem with it, either. He cleans the house while wearing rolling skates and makes popcorn in the washing machine; she dons a snorkeling mask to direct traffic with a ping pong paddle.
Clearly, they’re made for each other.
Meanwhile, Joon’s older brother Benny (Claybourne Elder), a garage owner and operator who has devoted much of his life to taking care of her, meets Ruthie (Tatiana Wechsler), an ex-actress (now working as a waitress) with car troubles, and a heart of gold.
Both couples seem perfect for and totally enamored with each other. So we should be on the fast track to a happy ending, right?
Of course not. “Benny & Joon” is, essentially, a romantic comedy, so there must be obstacles to be resolved.
Book writer Kirsten Guenther — adapting the 1993 film that was written by Barry Berman and Leslie McNeil and co-starred Mary Stuart Masterson, Johnny Depp and Aidan Quinn (and was something of a cult success) — has a delicate balancing act to perform. She’s got to keep four likeable, well-meaning characters from finding happiness too quickly. And she’s also got to sustain the film’s whimsical tone (which inevitably seems even more whimsical in the context of a stage musical) while also taking Joon’s mental illness seriously.
It’s too much for one mortal writer to pull off. As a result, this “Benny & Joon” ultimately seems too contrived to be fully satisfying.
Guenther goes light on Joon’s problems at first, presenting her as quirky rather than truly troubled. This makes Benny’s obsessive caretaking seem like overprotectiveness, and his insistence on sabotaging his own chance at romantic happiness, with Ruthie, seem bizarre. (Some psychological explanation is offered via a back story: He and Joon lost their parents in a car accident, and he is still reeling from that, emotionally, and determined to keep Joon safe, any way he can.)
Deep into the second act, the reality about Joon’s affliction is finally depicted, and the menschy Benny snaps. It’s a truly disturbing segment that is at odds with all the cuteness that has come before.
So the musical didn’t really work for me, as a story. Still, it has some good moments, mostly from Pinkham — the Tony nominee is a talented mimic and an even more gifted physical comedian — as the truly one-of-a-kind Sam, who glides through life creating magic and amusing everyone with whom he comes into contact.
The songs (music by Nolan Gasser, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein) are pleasantly melodic but a bit bland. You might expect the songwriters to add some offbeat touches to mirror the oddness of the characters, but these are few and far between.
Scenic designer Dane Laffrey does get into the spirit of the musical, though, creating a miniature train for Sam to ride, and a surrealistic backdrop: an aerial view of the city of Spokane, Wash., where the action takes place.
Among the supporting actors, Jacob Keith Watson makes the biggest impression as a surly video store owner whom Sam — who comes to the store, looking for a job — manages to win over with his earnest charm.
Watson also plays one of Benny’s friends, who seem as puzzled by his behavior as we, the audience, are. And as anyone would be. And that’s a big problem in a play where Benny is really the central character.
“Benny & Joon” will be at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through May 5. Visit papermill.org.
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