John is homeless, drunk and delusional. He eats squirrels. Raw. And Jane? She’s dead.
Will these two really lost souls work it out? Amina Henry’s “Hunter John and Jane” at Jack is one funny valentine. Silly at times, but also wrenchingly empathetic, it is a musical, a murder mystery, a ghost story and a love story.
John (Bob Jaffe, believably dissipated), a vagrant with a history of mental illness, takes shelter in a Styrofoam-strewn city park. (The set, by Brett Banakis, will give environmentalists the shivers.) Occasionally harassed by a pair of cops, he’s mostly left to spend his days muttering and shooting those squirrels with a bow and arrow.
One day Jane (Erin Cherry, affecting) appears. “I’m not like most people,” she tells him, “I’m dead.” She’s heard John boasting about having eaten his mother’s pancreas, so he’s the guy for her. She doesn’t remember much about her life — Jane is short for Jane Doe — but she knows that her bones are buried somewhere in the park. She orders John to find them.
“Hunter John and Jane” trades in a gentle and then not-so-gentle absurdism, a fun house reflection of contemporary life. There’s a running joke in the play: “What kind of tea is hard to swallow?” Give up? “Reality.”
With its deliberately naïve language, its flights into song, its light surrealism, the play sometimes suggests the work of the Cuban-American writer Maria Irene Fornés. Ms. Henry, like Ms. Fornés before her, is keen to explore the vagaries of intimacy, the impulse that draws us to other people and allows that impulse and those other people to warp our lives.
She also seems interested in the relationship between violence and sexuality. Women here are coded as either good/sexless or bad/sexy. And things don’t end well for the sexy ones. Jane isn’t the only woman who has died in the park at night.
Under Sash Bischoff’s busy direction, much of the play’s force leaks away in gestures and dances, set to Jack Dentinger’s live music, that repeat and repeat without really accreting. Ms. Henry’s script has its drippy points, too, like the figure of a small boy — embodied by a Styrofoam puppet and manipulated, Bunraku-style, by three actors — who keeps showing up with a red balloon to represent innocence, or something.
Then there’s a character, called in the program Sexy Woman (Jenson Smith), who starves herself for her lover and comes to the park to write twee poems about food: “1. Melt cheese and put it over yourself like a blanket. 2. Rub cheese on your skin like the sluttiest perfume. 3. Age the cheese. Until it’s old.”
Whimsy is also hard to swallow. More persuasive is the rawer stuff, Ms. Henry’s peculiar blending of horror and compassion. She is telling a terrible story — about women who have been killed, about women who have been forgotten, about a deeply damaged man tasked with gathering them up.
But this isn’t a bleak play. It suggests that even destitute, even dead we can be known and loved. Bull’s-eye.