Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Baker’s John is a haunting drama about women and madness.
John by Annie Baker. Directed by Sam Gold. Staged by Signature Theatre Company at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY, through September 6.
By Tim Jackson
In 2010 each play in Annie Baker’s Shirley, Vermont Trilogy was produced by a different Boston company. The result was a revelation. Baker’s genius for interweaving the rhythms of American small talk with interludes of silence made for theater that was hypnotic, witty, and a little frightening. (A considerable portion of one of the Trilogy‘s scripts, Aliens, calls for no talking.) In 2013, The Flick was staged by New York’s Playwrights Horizons. The play made for a riveting three hours, full of awkward pauses and random conversations about movies that slowly became a bittersweet reflection on petty ambitions and insecurities. My review noted that the “richest emotional insights in American life are best discovered through a subtle examination of quiet desperations.” Still, the production received complaints from subscribers about its lengthy running time. Then The Flick won the Pulitzer Prize.
At just over three hours, the Signature Theatre Company’s production of Baker’s latest play, John, is also filled with pregnant pauses. It is a complex work that gets under your skin and then sneaks into your soul. The performances of each of the four actors encourage audience members to do more than simply listen to what they say — we are invited to look carefully at how they sit, cross the stage, exchange glances, and even chew their food. Nuances of behavior, intimates Baker, reveal private yearnings and vulnerabilities. The setting is a musty bed-&-breakfast designed by Mimi Lien, a house populated by dozens of miniature objects, including dolls, figurines, a grandfather clock, and a Christmas tree. Lien customarily creates sets that look lived-in — objects resonate with meanings. The story takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas. A CD player quietly churns out (nearly) continuous music, a line-up of tunes that provides an ironic soundtrack for the action. Occasionally, a player piano comes alive.
Baker’s description of the play sticks to its surface: “The week after Thanksgiving. A bed-&-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A cheerful innkeeper. A young couple struggling to stay together. Thousands of inanimate objects, watching.” Specters are buried beneath and floating around what appears to be a simple lodging. While John has a comic dimension, much of the time the play’s unnerving rhythms, characters, and odd plot details give it the chill of a ghost story. (Dolls take on disquieting significance in John.) Baker peppers the writing with presences, psychological quirks, backstories, and historical allusions that are jarring.
Each of the women in the STC ensemble occupies a specific emotional space. Jenny Cheng (Hong Chau) arrives at the inn with her boyfriend Elias (Christopher Abbott). It is quickly made clear that this is not a contented couple; they have major issues to work out. The two are shown to their room by the stooped and grinning landlady, Mertis Katherine Graven (Georgia Engel). Disoriented by the presence of hundreds of tchotchkes hither and yon, the couple mounts the stairs. We hear an argument beginning. We don’t see the characters and can’t quite make out the words, but a cloud begins to descend. Jenny will be sleeping on the couch that night, though we don’t really know why. Chau is quietly riveting in this role; her Jenny expresses female vulnerability with exquisite grace. I found myself watching how the actor gently tilts her head or curls up on a couch.
Georgia Engel’s landlady, Mertis, has the mechanical carriage of wind-up doll. Her face is plastered with the painted grin of a marionette — charming, but it won’t go away. Mertis cares for an ailing husband whom we never see. In a brilliant bit of staging, Mertis becomes our mistress of ceremonies. It is she who opens and closes the curtain for each act. She moves the hands on the grandfather clock to move us forward in time. Her unbroken grin and steady, hobbling gate are alternately lulling and creepy. There is something vaguely ominous about the gentility of old bed-&-breakfasts — and this one is no exception.
We have to wait for the second act to meet Mertis’s blind friend Genevieve, played by Lois Smith in dark wrap-around sunglasses. She sits immobile at the kitchen table holding forth on life and musing about her recent descent into madness. It is a powerhouse performance. Genevieve’s rambling monologues have hints of the wild streams of consciousness found in the plays of Sam Shepard. The figure adds a compelling layer of significance to the play. She introduces John, the title character, who we never meet. We are told that he was Genevieve’s former husband, a determined oppressor who drove her to the edge of lunacy. (Caveat: when the curtain closes after the second intermission – don’t leave for the loo too quickly)
Things in this holiday inn are far from normal, and they get much stranger as the play goes on. Baker has written a story about women and madness, a feminist black comedy dipped in horror. Poor Elias doesn’t stand a chance as the only male in the proceedings. Every time he opens his mouth he can’t help but shatter the slow, hypnotic rhythms of the women’s conversation. He tries. He tells Jenny stories because she loves them, but he can’t seem to finish his yarns. Abbott’s performance as a sympathetic every-mensch is spot-on — he is bumptious and egotistical, obnoxious and petty. He suffers from some serious Jewish guilt and self-hatred. But Baker never makes him into a villain.
The production is a seamless collaboration between Sam Gold’s precise direction and Baker’s mysterious dialogue. The frequent pauses are not Pinteresquely filled with menace; instead, they are fraught with a kind of hostile if inscrutable eloquence. Language spirals from commonplace to dreamlike. Baker has cited the great Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz as an influence on this play. Shultz’s novel River of Crocodiles conjures up a similar atmosphere of edgy magic realism, an accumulation of enigmatic storytelling, parallel realities, and objects heavy with elusive meanings. Here is a representative passage from Schulz’s book:
“Reality is as thin as paper and betrays with all its cracks and imitative character. At times one has the impression that it is only the small section immediately before us that falls into the expected pointillist picture . . . while on either side the improvised masquerade is already disintegrating and, unable to endure, crumbles behind us in the plaster and sawdust, into the storeroom of an enormous empty theater. The tenseness of an artificial pose, the assumed earnestness of a mask, and ironical pathos tremble on this façade.”
In John, the fragile façade of the everyday crumbles under the weight of memory, guilt, lies, history, and madness. Baker, echoing Schulz, wonders just who is in charge of creating the ‘improvised masquerade’ in this ‘enormous empty theater.” Is it God, memory, past relationships, family history, a mystical energy? Why do we need stories, or even to lie, in order to cope with the inexplicable? Shultz is obsessed with the notion that creativity operates beyond our conscious control:
“The demiurge,” said my father, “has had no monopoly of creation, for creation is the privilege of all spirits. Matter has been given infinite fertility, inexhaustible vitality, and, at the same time, the seductive power of temptation, which invites us to create as well. In the depth of matter, indistinct smiles are shaped, tensions built up, attempts at form appear. The whole of matter pulsates with infinite possibilities that send dull shivers through it. Waiting for the life-giving breath of the spirit, it is endlessly in motion. It entices us with a thousand sweet, soft, round shapes which it blindly dreams up within itself.”
Baker is not as densely surreal as Schulz, whose characters dream up their own worlds-within-worlds. In John, thoughts on presence and absence, language and silence, the physical and spiritual, are not as extreme as in the Eastern European model. We like these characters; her people are distinctly American. There is no question here that we need stories and art to cope with the unpredictable and the preternatural. Baker is a master of cracking open that door where we see ghosts of ourselves grinning on the other side.
Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years, has just been completed. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.