Brianne Hogan's Back to You: A Dear John (Mayer) Letter is a charming piece of theatre, equal parts mash note and fantasy daydream. A little rough in some patches, it nevertheless accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do.
John Mayer (Martin Lindquist) has a problem: Himself. Hoping to recapture the joie de vivre of his early days and escape the douchebaggery his lack of a social filter engenders, he ventures back to Connecticut to reconnect with a long-ago summer romance, Rhianna (Hogan). He is intercepted by Rhianna's wannabe roomies, aspiring celeb blogger Calvin (Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll) and his too-old-for-American-Idol sister Carly (Carla Lopez). The past romance, retold through flashbacks, is weaved through the narrative.
Lindquist integrates a few of Mayer's physical mannerisms into a performance that never devolves into mere imitation. He brings to the role the strong personality and the sometimes genuine, sometimes shined-on confidence a born performer such as Mayer possesses. He handles the guitar well, giving us just enough of a taste to satisfy our suspension of disbelief.
In "Carly," Lopez embodies the not-so-quiet desperation of a performer well on her way to "washed-up" without ever having the opportunity to be a "has-been." This is a character on the edge, steering the screwball antics of the play. It would be easy for such a role to be played as a one-note caricature of a needy loser craving fame, but Lopez brings a sense of playfulness to the borderline hysteria. She has a strong singing voice, as well.
It's easy to take pot-shots at a person who takes on the Orson Wellesian task of writer-director-actor. It's exceedingly difficult to do, but Hogan manages it. I believe her performance would benefit from an extra pair of eyes in the director's chair -- you must sacrifice some of your attention and energy as a performer when you're wearing as many hats as Hogan is wearing in this production -- but had I not known that she was the powerhouse behind bringing this story to the stage, I would say the same thing about her performance. She is an appealing love interest, at turns mousy and confident; awkward and self-assured. I get how Rhianna could be an 18 year-old Mayer's love interest.
Fernandez-Stoll steals the show. A dead-pan delivery and incredible timing provide him the biggest laughs in the piece. Like Lopez's Carly, Fernandez-Stoll's Calvin avoids caricature with an infusion of humanity: He is too well-mannered to ever become what he aspires to be. He's too clever to become Perez Hilton, too discerning to work for TMZ.
I have a couple of problems with the script. Minor issues, really. In the flashbacks, we see how events inspire some of Mayer's early hits. The attempt to weave the actual lyrics into the dialogue was a bit cutesy at times, and unnecessary. For instance, we don't need to hear Mayer recite the first verse of "Your Body is a Wonderland" to get that Rhianna is the "body" in "Your Body is a Wonderland." Subtlety would play better, and offer a chance to see Mayer have a moment of sweet, innocent intimacy with the only girl to ever really "get" him.
There is an extended video bit that plays out too long by half. Ironically, the videotaped segments seemed less "real" than the work done onstage. This video can be cut down considerably, moving us to the "punchline" much quicker.
Hogan packs in some wonderful Easter Eggs for the Mayer fans in attendance. My wife and I have seen "Big Head" in concert a whole buncha times. Seven times for me, nine times for my wife. There were a few references that my wife and I laughed at that no one else got. Lindquist strums "Tracing" a relatively obscure Mayer song a few times in the play; a real treat for my wife, the John Mayer superfan:
Back to You is light satire, not a heavy work about celebrity and the eternal struggle over what motivates man to abandon civility and empathy. You will not walk away from this play chewing on deep thoughts concerning human existence. God help us if that's all theatre set out to do. Hogan tells us the story she has to tell, and does so in a delightful way.