Tuesday, August 11, 2015


photo: Matthew Murphy
No one path leads to an indelible, unforgettable performance. Sometimes an actor takes a classic, timeless role and makes it truly their own, to the point where anyone else repeating it seems pointless. For me, Vanessa Redgrave's fearless Mary Tyrone (in 2003's Long Day's Journey Into Night) and Simon Russell Beale's intense, broken Lophakin (in Sam Mendes' underrated production of The Cherry Orchard, at BAM) fill out this category. Sometimes, an actor plays a real person more clearly than the person herself: think Christine Ebersole' Little Edie in Grey Gardens, or Audra McDonald's Billie Holliday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, both instantly legendary. Occasionally, a writer creates a role for an actor that fits them like a glove, and the synergistic effect is immediately evident inside the theater: I felt it watching Tonya Pinkins at the first performance of Caroline, or Change, and I felt it again more recently, at two performances of Annie Baker's John at Signature Center.

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]

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Could not agree with you more. Found Annie Baker's JOHN absolutely captivating, all three hours of it. How Georgia at her age manages to learn that much dialogue, do that much stage business, and even pull the effin' curtain is beyond me. When I see her coming out of the CVS in my neighborhood she always looks like she might not be able to make it up the block. God, Stage Actors! What wonderful creatures! And what superhuman energy they derive from an audience! We won't even mention Lois, who is older than dirt and really kicks shit in this one. I first saw her as the barmaid in "East Of Eden" with Jimmy Dean as a teenager! Now a senior actor myself, all I can say is, I couldn't have been more inspired by either of the ladies.