‘John’ is the utterly remarkable, virtually unclassifiable new play from cult US writer Annie Baker. It sees her move away from the painstakingly exaggerated naturalism of her previous work – you may have caught her Olivier-nominated ‘The Flick’ at the NT a couple of years back – and onwards to someplace stranger, on the cusp of magical realism.
At the same time, it’s all still terrifically Annie Bakerish in its unhurried drollness. The entire play – all three hours and 20 minutes of it – is set in the front room of an oppressively chintzy B&B in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It’s run by Mertis (US actor and PA native Marylouise Burke, well worth the paperwork to get her over here), a jolly, slightly savant-like old dear with something of the ‘Twin Peaks’ Log Lady to her. She has stuffed the joint with artificial life: most visibly, dolls, but there’s talk of a husband called George who may be an invention, and beyond that there are hints of other, stranger beings.
It is the week after Thanksgiving and Mertis’s only guests are a young couple down from Brooklyn. Elias (Tom Mothersdale) and Jenny (Anneika Rose) are smart, adorable and clearly in the process of disintegration – he takes elaborate offence at almost everything she says or does, while her attempts to be conciliatory frequently lapse into passive-aggressiveness.
In a sense very little happens. They stay at the B&B for a couple of nights, he does some Civil War tourism, she cries off, they row over some text messages. But in James Macdonald’s beautifully measured production, there’s an ocean of meaning behind each moment. It is a good, excruciating, often quite funny drama about a relationship limping torturously to the finish line, fatally wounded by his ludicrously fragile ego. But swing a cat and you’ll hit something stranger and deeper going on.
In the second act, Jenny, Mertis and Mertis’s blind, seer-like best friend Genevieve (June Watson) discuss their relationships over a bottle of wine, and it’s the most remarkable thing, an exploration of the idea of love as a haunting, with each of their relationships intangible and out of reach (in Genevieve’s case she literally believes herself to have been haunted by an ex-lover called John – the first but not the last time that name appears in the play).
In the third act, things have moved through the looking glass, and the play takes on the air of a deadpan American gothic piece. In the most indelible and audacious sequence, Mertis reads Lovecraft’s ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ to Genevieve as the lights slowly fail; afterward Elias and Jenny bicker, oblivious to the faint white silhouette of Genevieve’s face, impassive in the background. It remains low-key but sears into the subconscious.
What does it all mean? Lot of things, though none of them are forced down our throats. For me, it seemed to be about how being haunted is part of the human experience. Religion is a haunting. Childlessness is a haunting. Love is a haunting. Lovecraft is a haunting. The Civil War haunts America. Elias and Jenny’s only real point of emotional contact is the ghost stories he spins for her. George – real or not – haunts Mertis, and her final, profound description of their love is so gorgeous and vivid that it feels more tangible than anything Elias and Jenny have.
‘The Flick’ didn’t really do it for me. It felt like a conventional comedy that aspired to profundity through glacial pace. ‘John’ is unhurried, but Macdonald’s production and Baker’s writing never feel stylised or stilted. And it is far from conventional: a rich, strange and idiosyncratic play, unnerving and heartwarming in equal measure, that journeys wonderingly to the fringes of the human soul.