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Theatre in Review: John (Signature Theatre)

Christoipher Abbott, Hong Chau. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Annie Baker's plays constitute a kind of theatrical equivalent of the slow food movement; she assembles a few carefully chosen elements and lets them simmer at length, bringing them to a boil only when the time is right. The popularity of works like Circle Mirror Transformation and The Flick is counterintuitive; at a time when 90 minutes is the standard running time for most new plays, Baker takes her own sweet time to reveal what makes her characters tick. Baker focuses on people who, in real life, wouldn't occupy our attention for more than a minute; even more surprisingly, the instruments of revelation are the menial, often repetitive tasks that occupy them, and the pregnant silences that are fairly bursting with unspoken feelings. Her special gift is to make the mundane fascinating.

But as her plays have begun to stretch out over three hours or more, one might justifiably wonder if her methodology is hardening into mannerism, if the silences are getting to be a little too frequent and the pauses a little too languorous. With her new work, John, the question becomes more urgent. This time out, Baker isn't just using silences and a measured pace to lay bare the unexpressed; instead, she is trying to invoke the numinous. Not for nothing does Mertis, the lead character, announce in passing that she is a neo-Platonist: For the four lost souls who populate the cast of John, real meaning, an authentic understanding of oneself and the world, seems forever out of reach. At the same time, they are surrounded by odd, unexplained events and intimations of -- what? A heavy ontological fog sets in early, never to be fully dispelled; it sometimes obscures the people on stage.

The sight of Mimi Lien's stunningly detailed set, which is beautifully lit by Mark Barton, immediately tells us that something weird and ineffable is afoot. Seemingly every square foot of Signature's large Diamond Theatre stage has been transformed into the interior of a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which Lien has accurately envisioned as a riot of Victoriana: a floral couch and chair set on a floral rug, with everything set against a background of floral wallpaper and piles of period tchotchkes and dolls. At stage right is a breakfast nook, whimsically named "Paris" and filled with china figures and tiny reproductions of the Eiffel Tower. It is the week after Thanksgiving and the living room is in full Christmas mode, with a towering tree only the most prominent part of the décor. When first encountered, it is nighttime, and the room is lit only by Christmas tree lights, twinkle lights gathered around the handrail of the alarmingly steep stairway, and rows and rows of individually illuminated toy houses. A piece by Bach, on the CD player, can be heard, just barely. The effect is equally tranquil and unsettling.

The place is run by Mertis, a woman of uncertain years, and, as portrayed by Georgia Engel, she is equally tranquil and unsettling herself -- an elderly, elfin hausfrau who never speaks above a hush and who sometimes lets a conversation end in a dying fall, as if her allotted daily words have run out, leaving her with nothing to offer. Soon after the play begins, Mertis ushers in Elias and Jenny, a young couple who have come to visit the Gettysburg battlefields. At least that's Elias' plan; Jenny, who couldn't care less about such things, has merely come along for the ride. In any case, they seem to be an oddly disconnected pair. They show little physical affection, and, only a few minutes after retiring for the night, Jenny reappears in the living room, planning to sleep on the couch.

What action there is in John involves the Elias-Jenny relationship as it unravels in slow motion over the course of the next few days. At first, Elias seems remarkably prickly, finding hidden hostilities in Jenny's mildest remark. A little skirmish over the breakfast table, about the noise Elias makes eating cereal, escalates into accusations of anti-Semitism, a charge that is especially offensive to the Asian-American Jenny. When Jenny returns from a visit to the battlefields, feeling ill, Elias continues his, making plans for the evening that don't include her. Is this any way for young lovers to act?

All this happens against a background of strange occurrences. Why do the Christmas tree lights randomly go on and off? Why does the player piano suddenly start playing? Why does Mertis want her guests to stay out of a certain upstairs room, and why does she become so vague when another, heretofore unnoticed, room is mentioned? I haven't even gotten to the reference to Cardinal John Henry Newman, the famed 19th-century prelate and Catholic convert; the journal written in an incomprehensible language; Mertis' ailing, unseen husband; and Genevieve, Mertis' best friend, a blind, bitter old bird who insists that her ex-husband took possession of her soul. And then there's the question Mertis loves to ask her guests: Do you feel as if someone is watching you?

The elements of a school-of-Ira-Levin thriller are in place, but Baker is after something else; everyone in John seems to be looking for some kind of spiritual guide -- not necessarily a religion, but a sense of transcendence, a connection to something beyond physical reality and the primacy of one's own ego. (In one of the play's most poignant moments, Elias confesses to Mertis that he hasn't the faintest idea of whether he wants to move forward with Jenny or cut his losses; he sadly wishes someone or something would tell him what to do.) As John becomes increasingly focused on the esoteric, it either becomes fascinatingly mysterious or bewilderingly vaporous, depending on your point of view.

As you would expect from one of our most original and gifted playwrights, John is filled with evocative moments: Jenny describing the one time in her life when she feel a connection to the universe, Genevieve's pitiless inventory of her disastrous marriage, and a quietly savage Act III confrontation between Elias and Jenny that exposes the betrayal and deception that has poisoned their love. This final act also packs a wallop of a surprise -- not to mention a final line that drew a gasp from the audience at the performance I attended.

But too often John feels attenuated, its people remote and trailed by clouds of ill-defined spirituality. Some have called the play a ghost story but the many hints of the unseen never coalesce into a truly haunting atmosphere. For once, the author's reach seems to exceed her grasp: Baker's genius has always been the way she uses silence to spark the audience's imagination; she knows how to locate the abiding mystery hidden in everyday people and events. In John, she conjures up an aura of mystery that seems strangely uncompelling, almost banal.

Working again with her regular director, Sam Gold, Baker ensures that John has any number of eccentric and appealing touches. The stage is fronted by a curtain that opens horizontally, like in school auditoriums, and each act begins and ends with Mertis opening and closing it by hand. The transitions between scenes are signaled when Mertis opens up the grandfather clock at center stage and advances its hands, Barton's lighting switching color and angle to show the passage of time. (Barton also achieves some remarkable looks working with daringly low levels of light.) Engel is a wonder, maintaining an eerie poise as she looks after her guests, her deadpan look telegraphing that she sees much more than she ever intends to say. Christopher Abbott captures Elias' permanent state of grievance, never more so than when he casually asks Jenny if she is suggesting that, to her, he is a hairy, disgusting Jew. He turns believably abusive in the final scenes, when his suspicions about her boil over, and yet one also feels his bewilderment and deep-seated unhappiness. Hong Chau's Jenny comes across as sweetness and light at first, only gradually revealing the far more complicated woman whose people-pleasing ways are slowly driving Elias crazy. Lois Smith confidently steals both her scenes as Genevieve, who expects the worst from life and is rarely disappointed. (Note: Don't rush to the bathroom, as I did, at the end of Act II; the curtains are closed and the doors to the auditorium are opened, but Genevieve makes a seemingly impromptu appearance on stage to talk about her nervous breakdown.) The other design aspects, including Ásta Bennie Hostetter's well-observed costumes and Bray Poor's subtle use of music -- by Bach and Offenbach -- plus several ambient effects, are totally solid.

The final scene of John, a tableau of three characters seated on the couch, facing straight ahead, is as telling an image of spiritual dislocation as you can probably get in a chintz-covered parlor. But if, scene by scene, John has many charms to offer, overall, it left me unconvinced. Baker's play is filled with such good things, but the distance between them is getting longer and longer. -- David Barbour

(18 August 2015)

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