Annie Baker’s new play John is a modern masterpiece, not only as a writing, both in matter and manner, but in its realization on the stage, perfectly integrated as it is with Sam Gold’s direction and Mimi Lien’s breathtaking set representing a bed-and-breakfast guest house in Gettysburg. These three artists together with the cast of four form a perfectly tuned quartet so beautifully balanced among themselves. The play runs nearly three-and-a-half hours with two intermissions, and this length together with many moments of pauses and silences through the three acts made some - not a small number — in the audience restless, and some among them fled the theater during the two intermissions.
Those long silences annoyed those who think theater is dialogue, expecting the actors to talk on incessantly as in TV sitcoms and failing to realize that in silence actors also act actively. Pauses in John
gave the play not only constituted its substance and made it so memorable; they were not only carefully calibrated but pregnant and often terribly tense and to those attuned to this pacing three hours did not feel long but continuously and excitingly mystifying.
Most generally, the team that realized John
intriguingly managed to overlay naturalism on the artifice of dramatic composition achieved the totally credible reality of never-fully-comprehensible murky complexities of human relationships, and the playwright accomplished it with only four characters in one single set. This alone is a superb artistry.
The play opens with the owner of the B&B, Mertis Katherine Graven who calls herself “Kitty” (remarkable Georgia Engel) effortfully pushing open the stage curtain (rarely in use in contemporary plays) to reveal a huge common room extending the full width of the stage; it is studded with tchotchkes of all kinds everywhere, and, since it is as though Kitty opened the drapery of the fourth wall of the room, the audience is immediately engulfed in the milieu of the play, made to feel we are well within the room, perhaps at its far corner. Silently, Kitty, limping lightly, shuffles about the room to turn on the music and adjust the grandfather clock to indicate the time of the scene, the action repeated at every change of the scene, one example of the artifice which is so natural that we never feel it a gimmick. After a long silence, we finally hear a car pulling in and we hear a noise of something being knocked over outside the door. But we never find out what it was, the first intimation of a mystery. A 30-and something couple then arrives (Christopher Abbott and Hong Chau as Elias and Jenny); Kitty comes to open the door and meet them but for a while no one says anything. We wait and at long last Kitty, absent-minded, realizes her duty and indicates them to the room upstairs, a different room, unexplained, from what the couple had reserved. We hear the loud quarreling between the man and the woman but we don’t quite hear what they are saying — another mystery. So, in the first few minutes we find ourselves already drawn into the emotional tenor of the drama, a particular kind of anxiety and tension existing in a couple who think and want to believe they love each other and yet feel uncertain and confused and doubtful; and we wait with our own anxiety akin to that of visiting someone we have never met before and made to wait a bit too long for the host or hostess to make an appearance.
This anxiety is the theme of the play, and it is consistently maintained and intensified as the drama progresses but at a deliberate pace with only bits and pieces of information as in real life to allow the characters to be shaped in depth, to some extent by the behavior of Elias and Jenny themselves and the strained interactions between them, like the quarrel at the breakfast table, trivial and yet revealing a deep-seated mutual discontent and Jenny’s childhood memory of an angry doll which she identifies as one of the dolls in the room, but also and more importantly by mysterious and mystifying happenings around them. On the one hand we see more obvious strange happenings, like the player piano which starts playing by itself and the Christmas lights that go off and on, and on the other hand, and more importantly, we are exposed to Kitty’s seemingly non-consequential remarks about her sick husband we never see and her first husband long dead or her impulsive recitation of the collective names for different birds; at one point she tells us that the her inn was was a hospital during the Civil War with dismembered limbs piled high by the windows so that the room was dim. She sounds naive or else senile, talking like a little girl, and yet she bursts out with astute observations. After a while she is joined by her friend, Genevieve Marduk (Lois Smith), blind and unseeing but all knowing, keeps making declamatory pronouncements about her state of mental disintegration with ample self knowledge and articulate precision not just to Kitty and the suffering couple but also to the audience, whom she detains, at the end of Act II after the curtain is drawn. Hers is a voice of the pervasive uneasy universe, so to speak; and she sits in the dark without a word while Elias and Jenny entangle on the sofa.
As we are inexorably drawn deeper into this world of anxiety, the psychology of the story gets inexorably thicker and thicker. In Act III, Elias sits with Kitty as the night approaches dawn and tells her his intimate and turbulent sentiment as one can only do to a virtual stranger as he would never do to anyone else; and we learn of the infidelity he suspects of Jenny on the basis of the text messages she reads but conceals from him. In the last line spoken by Kitty who leans over to peek in Jenny’s mobile phone, we learn that the sender of the text message is John.
The dialogues among the four characters are not only broken by pauses, long and short, but are often given in piece meal small talks, and yet they are step by step, scene by scene, calculated to deepen our anxiety, so that despite its length, we are continually kept tense, and the three-and-a-half hours zips past. Yet, on the other hand we feel as though we spent the whole stretch of events in real time because of the effect of life-like realism even though this is achieved by close calibration.
Annie Baker's John impressed me so and I went back for the second time; and it was even better.