'John': Theater Review

Matthew Murphy
Christopher Abbott in 'John'
A thoughtful, unhurried consideration of relationships that's worth sticking around for

Christopher Abbott, Georgia Engel and Lois Smith star in this contemplative new work by Annie Baker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright behind 'The Flick.'

There's a sense of occasion in arriving at a new Annie Baker-Sam Gold production. The playwright and the director — virtuosic collaborators on successes including Circle Mirror Transformation, an adaptation of Uncle Vanya, and most notably, The Flick, which is running in a much-extended commercial off-Broadway transfer — since they last worked together, have acquired a Pulitzer Prize (she, for The Flick) and a Tony Award (he, for directing Fun Home). It's fitting then that the proscenium of the minimalist, concrete-and-wood Irene Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center, where Baker's new play, John, is premiering, is kitted out with a lush, brocaded, red velvet curtain. This is theater, after all.

But it’s also fitting that the curtain is opened, manually pulled across the stage, without fanfare or even warning, by Georgia Engel, the beloved onetime Mary Tyler Moore Show player, who here portrays Mertis Katherine Graven, the odd but kind proprietor of the Gettysburg, Penn., bed and breakfast in which the three-act drama will unfold. This is a big show — three hours and change, on a broad, tchotchke-carpeted set, dealing with love and relationships and sadness — but also a humble, cerebral one, without bells and whistles. (To indicate the passage of time between scenes, Engel’s Mertis — who keeps asking to be called Kitty, though no one calls her that — carefully rotates the hands forward on a grandfather clock.) The play is also about the difference between our public selves and our private ones.

After pulling open that curtain, Mertis continues her puttering, primping her living room. Soon enough her only guests arrive, Elias and Jenny (Christopher Abbott and newcomer Hong Chau). It’s late and it’s cold, but, even so, there’s something off in their interactions. Part of it is Mertis’ quirkiness — Engel is a delight to watch, long a master of the subtle, underplayed batty aunt — but there’s a tension between the young couple. They speak in a careful, therapized language. “I was trying to let you in on my experience,” Elias tells Jenny in an argument soon after their arrival.

Read more Christopher Abbott in 'James White': Film Review

John is recognizably a Baker play, her characters trying to figure out how to exist with each other, with wise insights inside mundane observations, comfortable with long pauses and a slow pace (and a sizable running time). But it’s also unlike much of her previous work. Her previous plays were about outcasts — losers, in Trump-speak — people who knew they weren’t succeeding in society and were trying to figure out how to make their largely defeated lives work. John has a similar concern — how do you structure a fulfilling life, and one with other people? — but its characters are not outcasts. They are, more or less and in their own ways, successful. Also, John is sometimes wry, but unlike Baker's other plays, it's not especially funny.

It is thoughtful, however, and softly mesmerizing as these characters slowly reveal themselves. Jenny, it turns out, has done something terrible to Elias, and they are trying to rebuild their relationship. Mertis remains a cipher, if a chatty one, full of secrets and mysteries and always retreating into the private sphere of her home, rooms behind a closed and draped door, in which (we’re told) a never-seen husband lives. She collects miniatures — houses, buildings, dolls, a menagerie of other, secret lives — and her best friend, Genevieve (an unflappable Lois Smith), who comes to visit, is blind and maybe a bit crazy but (perhaps inevitably) the clearest-eyed of all. Elias, in despair, eventually articulates to Mertis the question that all the characters have wrestled with, that all of us have wrestled with: “Have you ever been in something and just like had no idea whether you should go or stay?”

The answer, for him, becomes clear. But it doesn’t always, and that debate is what John examines. It's also sometimes a debate about Baker’s plays: When The Flick premiered at Playwrights Horizons two springs ago with a three-hour running time, so many subscribers were leaving at intermission that artistic director Tim Sanford sent a letter of apology. At John last week, the house remained packed until the final curtain.

Cast: Christopher Abbott, Hong Chau, Georgia Engel, Lois Smith
Director: Sam Gold
Playwright: Annie Baker
Set designer: Mimi Lien
Costume designer: Asta Bennie Hostetter
Lighting designer: Mark Barton
Sound designer: Bray Poor
Presented by Signature Theatre