Thursday, August 20, 2015


In her absorbing new play, John (directed by frequent collaborator Sam Gold)Annie Baker shows that there are many ways to be haunted and many ways to be in touch with the universe--but perhaps fewer ways to love.

Engel, Abbott, Smith
Photo: Matthew Murphy
It's the present. Jenny and Elias are staying at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, where Elias wants to see the historical sights and both want to work on their damaged relationship. They are haunted by one partner's past indiscretion, their childhoods, and even an American Girl doll. Mertis, known as Kitty, is the owner of the bed and breakfast. At first glance she seems to be kind of simple, even silly, but she isn't, and her relationship with the universe is unusually close. Genevieve, Kitty's blind best friend, speaks frankly of "the time I went crazy," explaining how her ex-husband took over her brain after their split, in the most intimate form of haunting. Genevieve's craziness was the literalization of heartbreak.

In trademark Baker-Gold style, the play proceeds at the speed of life, with conversational lulls and false starts, slow walks across the room, candles being lit one by one. The pace is mesmerizing, and the play's open spaces allow subtle and deep characterizations. (As the response to Baker's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Flick, proved, however, this pacing is not for everyone.) Baker's brilliance at showing the humor of human foibles helps. The play is never boring.

Gold directs John with his usual creativity and intelligence. He leads the excellent cast to moving, funny, and fully realized performances. George Engel, as Kitty, is as likable as ever, but with more depth than her roles usually require. Lois Smith makes you want to hang out with the crusty, outspoken Genevieve for hours. Hong Chau and Christopher Abbott are painfully effective at presenting the myriad ways couples can hurt each other.

The set design, by Mimi Lien, is practically a fifth character. Lien gives us a bed and breakfast that is both inviting and too much. The bric-a-brac is just this side of overwhelming. Ásta Bennie Hostetter's costumes are effective. The show is darkly lit by Mark Barton; he establishes the right atmosphere, but it can be difficult to see what's going on.

Annie Baker is only 34, suggesting that we may see many more plays from her. This is good news for audiences everywhere.

Note: Don't run to the bathroom right after the second act ends. You'll miss something. I found this out the hard way.

(4th row; full price ticket, at the Signature's wonderfully inexpensive $25 plus fees)

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