Annie Baker is standing her ground. While her last play, The Flick, had subscribers fleeing the theatre because of the running length of over three hours, John – now in residence at the Diamond Theatre, Pershing Square Signature Center – kept most of them in their seats and had a few standing at the curtain call.
I am guessing that the reason some folks were standing was less the play’s content than the person of Georgia Engel (Mertis Katherine Graven) who has gotten decades worth of mileage out of playing daft and dazzling. In this play she is the proprietor of a nearly gothic B&B in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Though her subtle and precise performance Engel is not only the center of her establishment, she becomes the center of our universe.
The B&B is more of a destination for lost souls than it is a tourist trap. The time is the present, late November, so the battlefield tour population has dwindled. While ghosts roam the battlefields outside the B&B’s four walls, there are plenty of unsettled spirits within. Elias (Christopher Abbott) and Jenny (Hong Chau) arrive late one night and will be the only guests for the duration. They are here because Elias wants to tour the battlefields, but they are really here for a battle of their own. For pure entertainment we are provided with the fourth visible character Genevieve Marduk (Lois Smith). (Mertis’s husband George is terminally ill and remains unseen.) Genevieve is blind and a bit mad. The former is obvious and the latter she freely admits. She will narrate her descent into madness at the least encouragement. It was her husband John, you see, who invaded her mind when they divorced. Other than that, however, Genevieve’s life is pretty peachy, what with her friends Mertis around to help when needed and to read obscure books to her.
The sadness that resides in this B&B is palpable. Mertis lives a life of quiet desperation that she covers with a blanket of niceties. She tends to her husband and writes extraordinary treatises in her journal that belie her outward simplicity. Some of the entries shift to writing in “tongues” that make no sense, but when read out loud will get a stern reaction from the player piano.
The spectacular set by Mimi Lien has a life of its own and could be considered a fifth character. Stuffed animals and collectibles cover every square inch of space. The careening floral patterns in the furniture and carpet alone are like an Escher print. When Jenny has a lie down on the sofa to accommodate menstrual cramps she all but disappears in the fabric that surrounds her. Much is made of the upstairs guest quarters to which Jenny and Elias are escorted. Conversations are overheard. The couple moves up and down the staircase in every mode of movement possible. They sneak, they storm, they retire, they retaliate. It is a virtual emotional runway.
The performances, led by Ms. Engel, are exquisite. Ms. Smith gives one of her best as Genevieve. Her madness and sight deficit settle on her like a sparkling shroud. Abbot and Chau are engaging and exasperating as a tag team locked in a battle that both frightens and confuses them. Baker feeds us the dissolution of this relationship with the precision of a sadist pulling the wings off of a fly. The prolonged collapse is played out in fits and starts – and of course pauses.
Oh yes there are pauses. Pauses and pauses and pauses. 127 that I counted in the actual script. Like its predecessor John clocks in at three hours and change. The pauses account for nearly a quarter of that time, by my reckoning, and are a signature mark for Ms. Baker. They are just as baffling in this piece as they were in The Flick. I take that back. In The Flick the characters were all employed at the same movie house. Physical intimacy begets silence. Here the characters are divided equally as strangers with the result that these silences feel contrived. They take over the play and have a life of their own. One gets the feeling that the actors are actually counting out beats in their heads while they wait for the appropriate moment for the next line to be spoken. While I appreciate Ms. Baker’s intention to create active silence onstage, as opposed to filling each moment with dialogue, in this case the effort turns back on itself and the action begins to implode. We end up remembering the pauses instead of the characters who shared them.
This play does not appear destined to prompt a letter of apology by the this theatre’s artistic director as was the case with The Flick at Playwrights Horizons. After winning a Pulitzer, and successfully remounting that play downtown where it is now enjoying a run at the Barrow Street Theatre, Ms. Baker is on a roll. Perhaps as she gathers speed her dialogue pacing will pick up steam as well. One can hope.
John – By Annie Baker; directed by Sam Gold
WITH: Christopher Abbott (Elias Schreiber-Hoffman), Hong Chau (Jenny Chung), Georgia Engel (Mertis Katherine Graven) and Lois Smith (Genevieve Marduk).
Sets by Mimi Lien; costumes by Ásta Bennie Hostetter; lighting by Mark Barton; sound by Bray Poor; production stage manager, Amanda Michaels; associate artistic director, Beth Whitaker; general manager, Gilbert Medina; director of production, Paul Ziemer. Presented by Signature Theater, James Houghton, founding artistic director; Erika Mallin, executive director. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, Manhattan; 212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org. Through Sept. 6. Running time: 3 hours 15 minutes.