By: David Sheward
The everyday and the cosmic are both addressed in John, Annie Baker’s wonderfully weird new play at the Signature Center. As in her previous works including The Aliens, Circle Mirror Transformation and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick, Baker uses an ordinary setting such as
the back porch of a summer snack stand, a community-center acting class or a rundown movie theater as a platform to examine such profound issues as faith, love, and the human condition. Through incomplete sentences inarticulately expressing longings, prolonged pregnant pauses, and real-time stage action of seemingly mundane tasks, she shows us what goes on underneath the familiar surface. Her probing plays are never pretentious or obvious and they offer a rare glimpse into the souls and minds of amateur musicians, waiters, ushers, etc.-people like you and me.
This time we’re in an aggressively cosy, knicknack-stuffed bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, designed within an inch of its kitchy life by Mimi Lien. The only guests are Elias and Jenny, a young couple working through a rough patch. The eccentric innkeeper Mertis-but you can call her Kitty-offers a sympathetic ear to each, inquires as to their spiritual beliefs, and records her impressions of the sunsets in a journal. There are also visits from Kitty’s mysterious blind friend Genevieve. Oh and the whole place may or may not be haunted.
All four are groping blindly either literally or figuratively for a connection outside themselves. Elias and Jenny fumble towards each other despite the barriers each erects, and then push each other away. Kitty seeks confirmation of someone watching out for her and cherishes the beauty in nature and in her many dolls and figurines. Like an ancient mystic, Genevieve relates her frightening past of spending time in an asylum when she believed she was possessed by the spirit of her late husband John. (Significantly, Jenny is also haunted by a man with the same name.) It doesn’t sound like enough material to fill over three hours of playing time, but Baker and her frequent director Sam Gold find the fascinating poetry in these confused characters.
The admirable cast documents their search with compassion. Christopher Abbott and Hong Chau are heartbreakingly real as the distraught couple. The bond between them is solidly conveyed (watch Chau’s enraptured face as Abbott tells her one of Elias’ improvised ghost stories) and so is the seemingly unbridgeable gulf. The baby-voiced Georgia Engel is the perfect embodiment of Kitty’s child-like awe and her sage wisdom. Lois Smith is a chilling Genevieve. Her shatteringly monologue describing the seven stages of madness delivered directly to the audience right after the lights come up for intermission will haunt me along with rest of this mesmerizing play.
John **** Aug. 11-Sept. 6. Signature Theatre Company at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Running time: three hours and 30 mins. including two intermissions. $25. (212) 244-7529 or www.signaturetheatre.org.
Photos Courtesy Signature Theater
Originally Published on August 16, 2015 in ArtsinNY.com
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