John, Annie Baker’s new play now at Signature Theatre Company, stretches a series of eerie unknowns across three acts. Jenny (Hong Chau) and Elias (Christopher Abbott), young Brooklynites deciding whether to break up, check in to a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on a road trip. But they can’t be sure if their host, Mertis (Georgia Engel), is an ethereal spirit or a totally down-to-earth domestic maven. The couple wonders what’s behind the curtained doors in Mertis’s part of the house. Is the husband she keeps mentioning real? Do Civil War ghosts inhabit one of the guest rooms? Why does the innkeeper record mystical thoughts in a small notebook? Is her blind friend Genevieve (Lois Smith) a prophetic sage or a local nut job? Is the doll collection laid out in this dark old house (loaded with unsettling Union Army history) innocuous or freaky? Deeper down, Jenny and Elias struggle to know whether they can be honest with their lover without getting hurt.
With these teetering plot points — teasingly unresolved — Baker frames some large themes: Who and what is knowable under America’s eccentric façades? Are the impressions from external appearances and social clues reliable indicators of the inner lives that churn underneath? For Jenny and Elias, unexpected encounters with this town’s oddly spiritual strangers trigger realizations and reckonings.
Like Baker’s other dramas (including her 2009 breakthrough, Circle Mirror Transformation), John relies on attenuated naturalism. Scenes run long, with extended silences. At times we have to strain to hear conversations taking place out of view (in the b&b’s upstairs), while no one’s onstage. That form counts as Baker’s strength: She makes us wait for drama to happen, asking us to sit and contemplate the evocative setting and her characters’ behavior. We have time to observe things w
e otherwise might not: the revealing knickknacks and curiosities that adorn Mertis’s shelves, say, or the intensity of the evening light in the front window. Other times, however, these theatrical devices turn ostentatious and self-conscious, as when Mertis ploddingly opens the curtains at the top of each act and ritualistically forwards the hands on her grandfather clock to mark quasi-mystical scene changes.
Blue-chip director Sam Gold labors to make the real-domestic-time aesthetic work with the drama’s portents. But even with a solid cast, the production falters because it often feels stagy or contrived rather than disarming. Part of the problem is the play’s three-act structure, which leads to a fair amount of repetition. The Genevieve character neither integrates nor ruptures the story. (An attempt to give her a standout monologue misfires, seeming to repeat her earlier pronouncements.) Meanwhile the play steadily accrues possible symbols that never develop: a player piano, a sinister doll, a diet potion, an oracle. Of course, that’s by design even though it weighs things down; Baker underlines how the material world wards off otherworldly matters while being guided by them. Mertis, who says she’s a Neoplatonist, keeps asking the others if they’ve ever felt “watched” and mutters about “deep calling into deep” — but what of it? After threatening in the first two acts to coalesce into another kind of play — one promising poetic or mystical revelations — John ultimately settles for very smart psychology.
By Annie Baker
Signature Theatre Company
480 West 42nd Street