Annie Baker and Sam Gold's first collaboration since Pulitzer winner The Flick stars the noted character actresses Georgia Engel and Lois Smith.
Signature Theatre is being very up-front about John, the first of five new plays it will present in the coming years by the dramatist Annie Baker. On both its website and in-person, you will find a not-so-discreetly-placed sign reading "Expected Running Time: 3 hours, 15 minutes, including 2 intermissions." They're not too far off with their estimate: John, directed with customary delicacy by her invaluable collaborator Sam Gold, ran five minutes longer than that, though you feel it much more significantly than at Baker's equally lengthy Pulitzer winner The Flick.
Apart from their run times, it's unfair to compare the two in any way. Unlike The Flick, which is as straightforward as it gets, John is a challenging piece to interpret, one that will leave even the most perceptive audience members shell-shocked in ways good and bad. It's a conundrum-wrapped enigma of a play about memory's tendency to hurt and haunt, and the stories we tell ourselves to justify our wounds.
The setting is an old-fashioned bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, where Elias (Christopher Abbott) and Jenny (Hong Chau) have arrived for a getaway at the end of November. As we come to learn, they're a couple in trouble, attempting to rekindle their spark by, of all things, touring the historic battlefields of the Civil War. An argument begins as soon as the kindly old proprietor, Mertis (Georgia Engel), shows them up to their room. Jenny ends up sleeping on the couch that night, amid hundreds of dolls, stuffed bears, and miniatures, watching.
Each character is damaged in his or her own way. Elias, a drummer working in IT, longs to make Jenny happy, doing so by telling scary stories he can never seem to finish. Jenny is suffering from menstrual cramps so powerful she can barely stand up. Mertis is on the verge of widowhood, caring for her sickly, unseen husband. Mertis' best friend, Genevieve (Lois Smith), is a blind woman who "went crazy" several years earlier after her marriage to her husband, John, ended.
In her typical fashion, Baker tells us all we need to know about these lost souls through their mixture of small talk, unfinished sentences, and deafening silences. Here, however, she has a tendency to bite off more than she can chew. Her exploration of a surfeit of themes and ideas, and her tendency to settle on none of them, dilutes the play's overall impact, especially the frequent hints at the supernatural. As the play gets weirder and weirder, it becomes harder and harder to keep track of what story is being told.
But there's also much to be thankful for, starting with the breathtaking work of newly minted Tony winner Gold and his on-point creative team. Few can pull so much out of so little the way Gold does — even the placement of the tiny inanimate trolls that line the walls are as heavy with emotion as the gestures and breaths of the four cast members. Mimi Lien's set is so realistic that Signature could potentially charge admission for an overnight stay. Ásta Bennie Hostetter's contemporary-streetwear costumes help define each of the characters. Mark Barton provides spellbinding light work that's at its best in the third act, when things are only lit by the glow of candlelight. Sound designer Bray Poor contributes an eerie musical accompaniment from, among other objects, a player piano.
Baker has provided meaty roles for a pair of female character actresses of a certain age who don't typically have very many substantial roles written for them these days. Engel, the Mary Tyler Moore vet who appeared in Baker and Gold's production of Uncle Vanya several years ago, hides a wealth of heartbreaking sadness behind her perma-smile. Smith is as penetrating and laser-sharp as ever, especially in a tricky monologue late in the second act. Abbott and Chau are also quite nuanced as a young couple trying to keep it all together, but it's difficult not to be overshadowed when you're acting opposite the sublime Engel and Smith.
Perhaps the most thrilling aspect of John is the fact that Baker is still exploring the limits of her chosen medium in directions both she and it have never taken. This fact alone is worth shouting from the rooftops. John isn't an easy work to sit through, but thank the theater gods that Baker wrote it, and that Signature took the risk to produce such a boundary-pushing new work.