John: Theater review by David Cote
Annie Baker’s follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick (also now playing) is built on a similar scale: John runs three hours and 15 minutes over three acts and two intermissions. I note the length not to warn you about potential boredom (in the ordinary sense), but because duration is key component of the experience, which lodges in your memory, emitting time-delayed puffs of meaning. In the hands of a lesser writer (or director, since both are staged by Sam Gold), either play might have emerged as 90-minute, single-set generic fare. In essence, The Flick is a workplace dramedy centering on three mismatched slackers in a movie theater. John is basically a fish-out-of-water comedy with haunted-house undertones.
Baker and Gold use ordinary settings and bottled-up characters to explore, in painstaking detail, the coded behavior of isolated people in highly charged spaces. That means a lot of superficially banal business unfolding slowly, full of cold, awkward silences. (It would be amusing/horrifying to see an amateur production that eliminated pauses in favor of perky, stage-sitcom velocity.)
In John, mutually mistrustful lovers Elias (Christopher Abbott) and Jenny (Hong Chau), check into a rural Pennsylvania bed-and-breakfast, but we only learn of their relationship woes an hour into the action. The tchotchke-filled place is run by the sweet but unnerving Mertis (national treasure Georgia Engel), who trembles with grandmotherly solicitude, offering a brownish delicacy known as “sailor’s duff.” Elias wants to see historical sites in Gettysburg. Jenny suffers from bad menstrual cramps. Mertis sits by the window, staring at the sunset and writing ravishing descriptions. In the second act, Mertis’s blind older friend, Genevieve (Lois Smith, hilariously bleak), drops by to talk about the time her ex-husband possessed her body. To indicate the passage of time between scenes, Mertis advances the hands of an antique grandfather clock. The lighting follows suit. Everyone seems to be hesitating on the threshold of the absurd.
That is the human landscape of the play, but there’s so much more going on in the background, in Mimi Lien’s spectacularly kitschy set. The floral-patterned carpet and furniture clash so loudly you might have to plug your ears. It’s a week after Thanksgiving, but already a Christmas tree winks in the corner. One wall’s filled, floor to ceiling, with cutesy model houses. As Baker catalogs in her stage directions: “There are gnomes and trolls on the shelves and glass menageries everywhere and tiny little porcelain angels playing the harp and tiny hand-sewn sayings in frames. There is an entire miniature wintertime railway and village.” All this would be mere cockeyed verisimilitude if Sam Gold and the designers for lighting (Mark Barton) and sound (Bray Poor) didn’t start animating the set in deeply disconcerting ways. And the way Mertis talks about the Jackson Room (“a little temperamental”) will prickle the hair on the back of your neck.
Baker has written a deeply mysterious drama, with a thematic patterning that seems to warp and dissolve as each act progresses. At times John seems to be a study of the inner lives of objects: Jenny obsesses about a creepy American Girl doll Mertis keeps near the staircase; a player piano comes alive and plays “Me and My Shadow”; the Christmas tree has a mind of its own. Suggestions of ghosts, possession and witchcraft are brought up, then dropped. The spirit of Conor McPherson or Edward Albee’s metaphysical puzzle-box Tiny Alice seem to hover over the proceedings. At the same time, this is a perfectly ordinary study of trust issues between a young man and woman. The final music cue (emanating from a CD player shaped like a 1950s jukebox) is Olympia’s aria “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. A mechanical girl with whom our hero has grotesquely fallen in love sings of love and sweet birdsong. Like much in the cozy yet unnerving world Baker has created here—her most formally experimental to date—I don’t quite get the significance. But if I lower the lights and wait, some glimmering form might appear around the corner.—David Cote
Pershing Square Signature Center (Off Broadway). By Annie Baker. Directed by Sam Gold. With Georgia Engel, Christopher Abbot, Hong Chau, Lois Smith. Running time: 3hrs 15mins. Two intermissions.
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