Where Do You Work a “John”?

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Georgia Engel as Mertis Katherine Graven, Christopher Abbott as Elias Schreiber-Hoffman and Lois Smith as Genevieve Marduk in Annie Baker's John.
Georgia Engel as Mertis Katherine Graven, Christopher Abbott as Elias Schreiber-Hoffman and Lois Smith as Genevieve Marduk in Annie Baker's John.
Georgia Engel as Mertis Katherine Graven, Christopher Abbott as Elias Schreiber-Hoffman and Lois Smith as Genevieve Marduk in Annie Baker’s John. Photos by Matthew Murphy.

Annie Baker’s three-hour, Pulitzer Prize-winning previous play The Flick is considered controversial, but not by me. Although she often conjures the same themes, she refuses to write the same play repeatedly, and now she’s worked her magic once more with the three-hour-plus John. Undoubtedly, this one, at the Signature, will also be tagged controversial but again not by me.

I’m now an inveterate Baker partisan, which also means I’m a staunch advocate of director Sam Gold as well. He’s established as one half a formidable team, guiding Baker’s plays with an obviously instinctive understanding of what she’s after.

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For the constantly surprising John — which, not incidentally, goes by as if in minutes, when many 90-minute works seem to last eons — Baker imagines a sprawling Gettysburg, Pennsylvania bed-and-breakfast. (Mimi Lien has designed a Victorian home and decorated it with all sorts of tchotchkes as well as provided, since it’s late November, assorted Christmas trimmings.)

To this tenebrous surrounding, operated by Mertis Katherine Graven (Georgia Engel, sublimely enigmatic), come the touchy, self-consciously Jewish Elias Schreiber-Hoffman (the strong Christopher Abbott) and the initially understanding Jenny Chung (Hong Chau, cleverly sincere). Elias and Jenny plan to tour the local Civil War battleground but are really there to see how if they can iron out the wrinkles of a three-year relationship.

Unfortunately, their plans are marred when Jenny gets her period and has to let Elias explore on his own. She hangs around with chirpy Mertis, whom everyone calls Kitty. The only other visitor during the couple’s stay is Kitty’s best friend, the blind and caustic Genevieve Marduk (Lois Smith at her committed best).

Abbott, with Hong Chau as Jenny Chung.
Abbott, with Hong Chau as Jenny Chung.

Like Baker’s plays The Aliens and The Flick, John isn’t heavy on blatant action — stasis appears to be one of her themes — but plenty goes on. There are no end of instances that rivet attention for catching the rhythms of daily living. On the surface, things couldn’t be more ordinary. But they’re rife with unspoken uncertainties and inconsistencies.

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Baker’s talent — let’s call it by its rightful name: genius — is laying out immediately familiar sequences that, as they slowly unfold, prompt disturbing ambiguities. At first, Kitty is pleasant, even timid as she goes about providing her guests with meals and showing polite interest in them. But what is really happening up in the upstairs room she doesn’t want them to use, because, she explains, it has a leak? Where is her second husband, George, to whom she’s been married for 13 years and is presumably sick? Is there any deeper meaning, other than stage business, for Kitty to pull open the curtains at the beginning of each of the three acts and to close them at the end? (Imagine someone in 2015 writing a three-act play. Baker has, and that’s already a bold stroke.) Is there deeper meaning in Kitty turning the hands on the grandfather clock to the indicate passage of time? Is Kitty—remember, her surname is Graven—some unidentified superpower?

When first seen, Elias looks to be an upright guy, half of a nice couple. He’s convincingly concerned about Jenny’s sleeping difficulties, but then he turns jealous and argumentative, quick to attribute anti-Semitic sentiments to the incredulous Jenny. Determined to confirm the infidelity he suspects in her, Elias eventually performs an absolutely despicable act. Risking a possible spoiler, I’ll note that it involves a doll on display by the prominent staircase, which Jenny says is like one she had as a child (and still has) called Samantha.

Jenny’s devotion to Samantha is the subject of a speech in which she talks about being intimidated by critical thoughts that the doll, she believed, had about her. She repeatedly expresses unadulterated love for Elias, but Baker does imply Jenny might be, as he suspects, lying — and often. Where her loyalties truly lie is one more unanswered query that Baker dangles before us.

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The great Georgia Engel.
The great Georgia Engel.

Genevieve, a woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, has barely arrived when she launches into a long explanation of how, when she left her husband years before, she believed he took possession of her mind and of everyone’s mind around her. She explains it as the root of a madness from which she has never fully recovered. Baker and Smith see to it that behind Genevieve’s dark glasses, truculence prevails.

Though occasional talk of ghosts occurs — Kitty remarks that her house isn’t haunted; Elias tours Gettysburg ghost hangouts — odd things do occur on the premises. Inexplicably, the Christmas tree lights go on and off on their own. There’s a player piano abutting the staircase that suddenly starts up, at one point meaningfully intoning “Me and My Shadow” with the old standard’s ghostly soupçons. At another moment, sound designer Bray Poor sends in the doll Olympia’s song from The Tales of Hoffman. All music in John is carefully thought out, as are all sounds — like the muffled Elias-Jenny conversations heard from their unseen upstairs room.

While it might be said that the Elias-Jenny relationship is the focus of this latest intriguing Baker work, there may be patrons who can’t quite figure out what she’s getting at. That’s as if it’s necessary to “get” what any playwright is “getting at,” rather than responding to the many inviting possibilities being hinted at as the play unfolds.

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Engel, Abbott and Chau.
Engel, Abbott and Chau.

The big question mark here is why, when none of the characters are named John, Baker uses the common name as her title. She gets a laugh on this line: “Everybody knows somebody named John.” That’s one clue to her meaning. But there are also others, such as John being the name of Jenny’s previous boyfriend.

Baker undeniably employs the name metaphorically. This comes into focus, or should, when both Jenny and Genevieve discuss the forces that took them over, as if conscience played the culprit. One reward of John is the fun in reckoning how many ways the title can be validly interpreted.

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When the second act ends and as some ticket buyers exit the auditorium, Genevieve parts the curtains and recounts a short story about her insanity stretch. When you see John, don’t miss that interlude.

Any sentient theatergoer is familiar with The Pinter Pause. Director Gold is not just agile about getting flawless performances from his players, he’s a hands-down expert at maximizing what could be dubbed The Baker Pause. It’s a different pause from Pinter’s, which he carefully inserted into his scripts to nudge at mystery. Baker doesn’t often indicate them, but, when they crop up, they’re meant to reiterate life as it’s lived. Watch for them and you’ll discover them.

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