Review: “J & K 1965”

Review: “J & K 1965”

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage Associate New York Theatre Critic

An outdoors, interactive experience explores if love can survive heroin addiction.

Similar to a French New Wave film, not much happens in J & K 1965 and, yet, everything happens. In the new interactive immersive experience produced by Live in Theater, a group of fourteen audience members follows a young couple addicted to heroin, John (Kevin Percival) and Karen (Phoebe Dunn), around Sara D. Roosevelt Park. Drawing inspiration from a controversial photo essay by Bill Eppridge, “John and Karen, two lives lost to heroin”, published in Life Magazine in February 1965, director Carlo D’Amore created a piece that punches you right in the gut with brutal honesty and sincere compassion.    

Next to “wear comfortable shoes” and “be prepared to move”, Live in Theater should add “be prepared to be shaken to your emotional core” in the confirmation email. Also, be ready to don an actor’s hat, as audience members are occasionally assigned a part in the story, which they perform for the duration of the scene. You might become a drug dealer, a cop, John’s brother or somebody else. Roles appear as we walk around the park on the hunt for money and heroin, but fade away quickly, much like faces of people who John and Kerry encounter in their lives.

Phoebe Dunn and Kevin Percival are incredible as a young couple, living menage-a-trois with heroin. As we are introduced to them, standing motionless, recreating the photograph opening of Eppridge’s reportage, we learn that they both come from fine, middle-class families. D’Amore, who created the show, made a smart choice not to dig for the reasons behind the individual’s drug addiction nor to speculate about the future, and concentrate only on the current moment instead.

The current moment is the only time period which John and Karen live in, and most of the time their plans revolve around two things: where to find money and where to find drugs. When the audience splits in two groups, I am in the one that follows John in the search for his dealer friend. We run up and down the block, try to pick a code to a heavy metal door in the alley, or discuss looting cabs and pocket picking as John’s choice for a source of income. This part of the show reminds me of childhood games, when we were spies on a mission, knights at war and wizards going about their magic business, completely ignoring the passers by. Only this time we play “junkies in the needle park”.

J & K 1965 humanizes the global healthcare and social problem of drug addiction by introducing the audience to two likable, bright young people, who’s lives and relationship are slowly being ruined by heroin. It is hardly a new approach, but it evokes an emotional response and Live in Theater nailed it. The physical proximity to the actors and necessity to make decisions yourself is unique to this production. Even if you choose to stay indifferent to John’s idea to steal something from the street or Karen’s decision to prostitute herself to buy drugs, you will have to decide if you want to shoot up with the group in the middle of the playground.

This is where it got me. As Dunn, playing Karen, standing right next to me kept saying “It’s OK, they won’t know what we are doing, we will cover each other” referring to the children running around just a few feet away from us. Dunn’s body cringing from withdrawal and anticipation is a performance too realistic to bear, and I broke into tears.

Although Sara D. Roosevelt Park is not the original needle park where John and Karen lived in the 60s, it is a perfect location for their story in a very uncanny way. Located in the Lower East Side, the park is a mixture of sports grounds filled with athletic youth and homeless people hangouts. During the introduction scene a man was washing his clothes and himself in the fountain. Another man with an absent gaze approached the group and stood with us for a while without saying a word. Somebody’s feet sticking out of an improvised tent, the smell of excrement here and there around the park – all of these “city sights” that we may otherwise ignore become a part of the story and the set.

On your way back to the subway from where the show ends, you can view Bill Eppridge’s photographs by downloading the J&K 1965 smartphone app, developed by Omega-R in collaboration with Live in Theater. Using the technology of augmented reality, you can scan the seekers placed throughout the park to meet the “original” John and Karen. This little exhibition can be either an introduction or a closure to J & K 1965 and I strongly recommend checking it out while you are in the neighborhood.         

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J & K 1965 plays in Sara D. Roosevelt Park, SW Corner of Forsyth and East Houston Streets, through July 30, 2017. The running time is 80 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Sundays at 2. Tickets are $49 and are available at liveintheater.com.) 

J & K 1965 is written and directed by Carlo D'Amore. It is produced by Live in Theater.

The cast is Phoebe Dunn and Kevin Percival.

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