|photo: Matthew Murphy|
The actor, in this case, is Georgia Engel, probably best known as the daffy Georgette Franklin on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. That instantly-recognizable voice -- something between a squeak and a wheeze, though carrying layers of possibility underneath -- is still there, but Engel's current creation couldn't be any further from her sitcom past. She plays Mertis Katherine Garven, the amiable proprietress of a tchotchke-stuffed bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where she's as likely to discuss the transmigration of birds or theories of love as she is to serve Vienna fingers and chocolate tea to the young couple (Hong Chau and Christopher Abbott) who serve as her only guests.
Written specifically for Engel (who previously appeared in Baker's free translation of Uncle Vanya), Mertis Katherine -- "Kitty," as she's known -- is a singular creation, a perfect marriage of actor and role. She doesn't always speak -- this is an Annie Baker/Sam Gold collaboration, after all; silence often takes precedence -- but nothing she says is inconsequential. Engel's breathless delivery could not be more ideally suited to impregnate every word with a sense of double (or triple, or quadruple) meaning.
But the blessings don't stop there. John also features Lois Smith, perhaps the most essential stage actor currently working, as a mysterious blind woman who sets certain aspects of the plot in motion. To reveal too much about her function would be to spoil the experience of the play, but I'll just say this -- whenever she shows up, hold onto your seats.
Abbott and Chau excel at conveying the nervous energy of a young couple whose relationship may be coming to an end. They convincingly commit to the minutiae Baker provides, which adds to the authenticity of the play. A long scene involving a beloved childhood doll represents one of the most believable evocations of couple combustion I've ever seen.
Baker's play will not be for everyone. As with her Pulitzer-Prize winner, The Flick, the running time is over 3 hours, with healthy stretches of silence and intentionally muffled dialogue. With the exception of Smith's vigorous Genevieve, the acting style could be described as extreme naturalism. At the second performance I attended, the audience was openly hostile, with many walkouts during the play and at its two intermissions. However, I was beguiled -- enough to walk downstairs and buy a ticket to a second performance during the intermission of the first performance I saw. And Georgia Engel -- all I can say is, she gives individual line readings that are worth the price of admission alone.
[$25 tickets thanks to Signature's Ticket Initiative; Row P on the aisle the first time, Row N on the aisle the second time]