Annie Baker is a very brave playwright. After her last play, The Flick, caused a ruckus in its initial run at Playwrights Horizons in 2013 because disgruntled patrons found it too long, the playwright now presents John, a play equally as long. It’s also just a luxurious in its attention to time, the rhythms of quotidian life, and the tiny quirks of human behavior in which emotional information is encoded like so many strands of DNA. I don’t believe in “feminine” or even feminist aesthetics, but something about Baker’s work pays attention to the ordinary in ways that seem to me productively and instructively gendered.
True to form, too, Baker doesn’t waste time on exposition. The characters’ backstories unfold through anecdotes and behavior, but it’s their present circumstances that make them compelling. Elias (Christopher Abbott) and Jenny (Hong Chau), a twenty-something-ish couple from Brooklyn, arrive in an overstuffed Gettysburg bed-and-breakfast run by an older woman named Mertis Katherine (Georgia Engel). She prefers to be called “Kitty,” but everyone just calls her Mertis anyway. Elias and Jenny arrive late at night, signaling already how they’re out of step with conventional time. Mertis fusses over them in the always intrusive way of B&B proprietors whose lives are empty without boarders to exhort and entertain—or so we think. In fact, Mertis has secrets and depths and a history that Elias and Jenny can’t begin to plumb.
Because this is Annie Baker’s world, the characters invite our interest and sympathy rather than antipathy or condescension. In other hands, Mertis would be a flibbertigibbet. And after all, she’s played by Georgia Engel, famous for her squeaky voice and surprised, faux-innocent expressions on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Everyone Loves Raymond. But here, with her slight limp, her intensely focused presence, and her unexpectedly profound sense of what’s happening underneath the dialogue, Engel’s Mertis is the quiet, forceful center of Baker’s play. At the end of each scene, she removes a key from her blouse with which she unlocks the face of the old grandfather clock that stands upstage center. She carefully shifts the hands of the clock into position for the next scene, patiently circling the dial as the lighting adjusts the time of day accordingly, and then she moves off into her private quarters. Engel-as-Mertis also begins the play by pushing aside the heavy stage curtains that hide the scene, walking each section of drapery down to the side with a deliberate, determined pace, and then pulling them closed just as doggedly at the end of each act. Hers is the agency through which the story unfolds.
What happens in John is less important than its thematic preoccupations, although Baker manages to create a level of suspense that compels the audience’s attention. Elias and Jenny’s relationship is beset with problems, mostly around fidelity and trust, and they’ve left Brooklyn for Gettysburg to sort them out. But the historical town and the B&B’s mysterious past pull them into a broader reflective mode, and place their concerns in the context of the more existential questions about truth and time and, well, God. John reminded me of something out of Ionesco or Beckett throughout its three acts, but graced with Baker’s humanity and heart.
In fact, the appearance of Mertis’s friend Genevieve at the top of the second act puts the play’s absurdist heart on its proverbial sleeve. Played by the redoubtable Lois Smith, Genevieve is blind, piercing, and possibly insane. Her sunglasses and her retractable cane, along with Smith’s gruff voice and powerful, take-no-prisoners stance, signal the presence of the mythic blind seer. That Genevieve’s engagements with the others has little to do with John’s apparent plot makes her that much more mysterious and interesting. At the end of the second act, in fact, after the house lights come up and as the audience stretches and some begin to head for the lobby, Smith-as-Genevieve suddenly pops through the stage curtains to call us to attention. She exhorts us to listen to the story of how she went mad, promising she’ll take no more than five minutes. With the house lights up, the surprised spectators settle down to listen as Genevieve rants about the seven steps to her madness, all inspired by her abusive ex-husband, John, whose voice has taken up residence in Genevieve’s head to torture her further. Then she disappears back behind the curtain and the audience proceeds with its break, stunned and amused by this unexpected turn of intermission events.
John is full of such surprises, even if few are as spectacular as Smith’s curtain speech. Director Sam Gold, Baker’s frequent, masterful collaborator, perfectly modulates the play’s pace. Where other directors and actors might rush through Baker’s elegant pauses and silences, Gold and the terrific cast sit with them comfortably, inviting the audience to contemplate, as they do, the mystery and awkwardness inherent in daily life. Sometimes, whole scenes take place in near darkness, as Elias and Jenny talk through their relationship in the dead of night. That we can’t see their faces makes us listen more closely to their murmurings, and invites us to read the subtext through our ears. Other times, we overhear them talking or fighting in their guest room (up the magnificent set of stairs provided by the talented scenic designer Mimi Lien), but have to strain to make out their words. (I saw a performance live-captioned for the hearing impaired, otherwise, I, too, would have been unsure about what the characters were saying—which is part of Baker’s method.)
John is, in fact, all about who sees and who hears. Mertis asks Elias and Jenny (in separate scenes, since this question, as FS2 points out, is too private to ask together of a couple who mistrust one another) if they feel someone watching them (“Do you have a watcher?” she asks). They parse the difference between being watched and watched over. The B&B has its ghosts, too, who become part of its existential schema of omniscience and omnipresence. Genevieve observes that Mertis’s house is filled with “matter,” and Lien’s set design packs the place with tchotchkes and whimsy that become in turn malevolent and benign. Jenny sees life in objects. She tells stories about growing up with Samantha, the American Girl doll, who unsettled Jenny, as she felt Sam was always angry with her. That Mertis has her own Samantha doll, prominently displayed on the stairs’ landing, unnerves Jenny all over again. The doll becomes key in a pivotal moment between Elias and Jenny, but Samantha haunts each scene, as she, too, watches the action, always lit (by designer Mark Barton) in a way that calls her to our attention.
Despite the sometimes sinister undertones that all this watching and overhearing implies, Baker balances the balefulness with care-taking and affection. At the end of one of Genevieve’s visits, Mertis offers to walk her friend out—and she does. The actors cross the stage arm in arm as Genevieve snaps her cane into place and shrugs on her coat. And we watch them, noting their intimacy, affection, and age as they cross the wide proscenium toward the door (which takes a while). They’re gentle with one another in the casual way of old friends, which is only remarkable for how infrequently we see older women with long-standing relationships explored on stage. By comparison, Elias and Jenny’s concerns seem so new and green, discontent because they’re young and unformed. Still, Mertis’s sympathy extends through questions that might seem invasive and probing, but that sound kind and wise in Engel’s precise, empathetic delivery.
John is beautifully crafted. Baker establishes subtle patterns, and threads references, themes, and images across moments. Jenny as a child felt burdened by stuffed animals, as she couldn’t provide them all with what she thought proper homes; Mertis’s stairs are lined with stuffed animals that appear to Jenny a reproachful reminder. Mertis’s first husband died when he was electrocuted in their basement as he worked on a handyman’s project; Elias suffers what he calls “brain zaps,” brought on by withdrawal from the Cymbalta he takes for his depression. Mertis tells Elias and Jenny that some of her rooms are more “reliable” than others, and worries when Jenny decamps into the Jackson room to sleep when she’s trying to avoid her partner. Genevieve admits she prefers to sleep in the Jenny Wade room, a little room hidden off the uneasy Jackson. Mertis tells a story about the house’s history, when it was a Civil War hospital. Mertis describes how so many soldiers’ limbs were amputated that arms and legs piled up ten feet high outside the windows, useless but potent. Jenny describes the taste of something as like “rain on concrete.” All of these images knit together to become both what they are and more than they seem, in a beautiful, lyrical, subtle ode to metaphysics.
In the play’s last moment, Mertis and Genevieve sit on either side of Elias on the couch center stage. Mertis lights her “angel chimes,” a set of candles whose flames prompt little angel-shaped figures to fly around a stem. The three watch the angels flutter. The plays’ final reveal, in that moment, comes from a text message Jenny receives on her phone, which Elias intercepts and Mertis reads over his shoulder. The message appears to settle some of the play’s questions about fidelity and truth. But in Baker’s hands, it also gestures out toward all that remains ineffable, unknowable, and undecidable, all experienced in the temporary but comfortable companionship of those who might not be watching over, but are there to witness with.
The Feminist Spectator
John, by Annie Baker, at the Signature’s Pershing Theatre Center, Manhattan, through September 6, 2015.