If you’ve seen even a small handful of movie commercials over the past decade or so, your mind’s ear will immediately recall the intense, slightly gravelly voice I’m referring to when I ask you to imagine an ad that starts, “In a world where mutants run the surface and pterodactyls rule the sky, the only way out is underground.” Most likely, your brain will also be able to access a memory of the other prototypical voiceover guy guided only by my mention of any Adam Sandler-style comedy ad, which would go something like, “He’s a near sighted veterinarian. She’s a gorilla who raps … in sign language! When they meet, things are going to go bananas!”
With Jon, author George Saunders and adapter Seth Bockley clearly aspire to a work requiring the efforts of the former ad narrator, but the play they’ve crafted calls out unequivocally for the stylings of the latter. This is not to say that Jon isn’t entertaining and, at times, even mildly thought-provoking. It’s just that the fractured, futuristic society it posits is more dyspeptic than dystopic, making Jon a fleeting diversion rather than a satirical mind blower. It’s a good play, to be sure, but great it is not.
As the audience files into the East Theatre at the Dairy before Jon begins, Jon (Ryan Wuestewald) is already on stage. He alternates between sitting and pacing, fidgeting all the while. Though we know nothing about this character or his situation yet, we can tell he’s fretful, maybe even nervous. Behind Jon, commercials for Doritos, Budweiser and any number of other consumables play on an endless loop. The stage is literally set for something important to happen.
Only, it doesn’t. In a laid back, often amusing but never hilarious way, Jon introduces us to his world. He and a handful of other teenagers live sequestered in a corporate dormitory. Their purpose is to be full-time beta testers and opinion-makers for new products. Their feedback on a soft drink or video game determines its success or failure. Due to the power they wield and the perks that come with it — designer clothes, 24/7 mind-melded access to the Interwebs and generous helpings of a heroin-like drug — they are even considered celebrities. Think of them as the cast of Real World: Future Focus Group.
Given the play’s own advertising, it’s no spoiler to mention that Jon knocks up one of his co-tastemakers, Carolyn (Sonia Justl). As the realities of parenthood begin to materialize hazily at the edges of Carolyn’s mind, she starts to question whether the bosom of the corporation is the best place and way in which to raise a child. She and Jon are permitted to leave if they choose, but if they do they’ll lose their celebrity and all the comforts that go with it. For anyone, and especially a teenager who’s never known any other life, the decision is daunting to say the least.
For any fan of Bradbury, Vonnegut or the like, it’s obvious that Jon possesses all the ingredients for some serious social commentary. That it never really says much of anything is, therefore, a bit of a conundrum. Though they are effectively owned by their “parent company,” Jon and the rest of the teenagers are free to terminate their employment and join the proletariat anytime they want. The introduction of the opiate opens the door to any number of plot lines about control, self-medication or the nexus between corporate profiteering and mental health, but none of these ideas are explored.
With its wet-wired world and the borderline aphasiac consequences of pulling the plug, Jon sets up a truly interesting, multi-leveled quandary with the potential to touch on issues of morality, responsibility and group dynamics. When it fails to till this fertile philosophical and theatrical ground, instead opting to approach it in the most simplistic, binary manner, a great opportunity slips through the play’s fingers.
As he did in How the World Began, Wuestewald shows a considerable amount of acting acumen. He is just as believable here as an urbane yet confused pseudo-celebrity from the future as he was there as an ultra-religious country bumpkin from the present day. In the supporting role of a corporate caregiver with a sliver of soul remaining, Jason Maxwell also deserves much praise. Jon comes alive every time he joins a scene.
Jon is presented by the Catamounts at the Dairy center and plays through March 16. Tickets are $10-$18. Call 303-444-7328 or visit www.thecatamounts.org.