Does it really take three and a half hours to find out that someone is lying? By that time, do we even care?
Annie Baker’s latest play, said to “cast a unique and brilliant light” by The New Yorker’s critic, strikes this country mouse reviewer as a work of parts that are greater than the whole. Individual scenes are frequently interesting, sometimes funny, but rarely enlightening.
Director Joe Calarco also waxes frothily on the beauties of this beast. “…a hilarious, exquisitely beautiful play,” he calls it. Let’s just say we have very different ideas of what an “exquisitely beautiful play” might be.
I won’t discount the poetic oddity that was Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation,” but “John” is something else entirely. I like a good piece of symbolism as much as the next gal, but when a character complains of cold hands and I’m supposed to think, “Oh, she’s the marble statue Pygmalion!” – I draw the line.
What this play does have going for it is a very strong cast of four actors who deliver everything that is asked of them. Unfortunately, what is asked of them is not enough to make the three and a half hours, including two intermissions (one interrupted by a long, rambling recital of mildly amusing delusions) worth the suspension of our disbelief.
Elias and Jenny, a modern couple wrestling through a long relationship, show up at Mertis’s Gettysburg B & B for a weekend. Elias is especially interested in Civil War history and takes advantage of the battlefield tours – with or without Jenny, who has cramps. We might be forgiven for thinking that they are there for the Christmas holiday, since there is a fully dressed Christmas tree in Mertis’s living room. But it’s just November.
Jenny (Anna Moon) is an attractive Asian-American of mercurial moods. Elias (Jonathan Feuer) is a neurotic Jew with terrible table manners. In an excruciatingly apologetic way of pointing out how unappealing smacking one’s lips and chewing with the mouth open are, Jenny leaves us wondering “Why is she still with him?” When she gets repeated message dings on her phone, always from her “sister” and responds evasively to Elias’s inquiries, we wonder, “Why is he still with her?” Neither question is ever answered.
Nancy Robinette delights as always, this time as Mertis, the slightly befuddled, distracted, eager to please landlady of the B & B. But there’s only so much even Ms. Robinette can do with the fact that her mysterious husband, George, who we learn is very ill, never materializes or has anything to do with anything. Nor can she help odd stage directions that have her oblivious to what’s going on right under her nose or standing at peculiar distances from the object of conversation.
Her dear friend Genevieve (Ilona Dulaski) is even more removed. Ms. Dulaski charms her way through layers of eccentricity in the blind and harmless Gen. Along the way, we learn of her stay in a mental institution brought about by her former husband, John. John, she believes, took possession of her every thought and movement, but eventually began to release control. It turns out that Jenny also has a former love interest named John who still texts her. Groovy.
Andres Cissna’s lights and Paige Hathaway’s intricately detailed set deserve their own ovation. Intimate, snug even, crammed with books, knick-knacks, and a creepy assortment of dolls, the main room with its upright piano and spiraling staircase is exhibit A in Elias’s contention that there is something “tragic” about B & Bs. All that straining to be quaint and charming….he has a point. Add to that the Christmas tree and a very fine Grandfather clock which Mertis frequently sets forward to help us grasp the passing of time, and it’s impossible to avoid the suspicion that we’re being bombarded with deep meanings.
One of them, which I was just as happy not to get, involves a doll in a rocking chair perched on the player piano – but not just any doll. This doll is identical to one that Jenny had as a child and stored away in her parents’ basement, an act that has left her wracked with guilt.
Much has been made of Ms. Baker’s naturalistic dialogue, and I’ll concur to a point. But there’s also a studied quality to all the half sentences and long Pinteresque pauses as if the conversations came from a study guide on How To Write Naturalistic Dialogue.
Considering the enormous amount of talent and effort that went in to bringing “John” to the Signature stage, I feel almost churlish not loving it as much as the New York in crowd does. But there it is. And there is also this: even if the general point of “John” has to do with “hauntings” of people who are not there, or if we’re supposed to see reflections of the Pygmalion myth, what then? If “John” demands that the audience must struggle and reflect and mull over the possibilities of meaning, what hidden riches does the play offer in return?
Responses will vary.
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Where: Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Ave.
Call (703) 820-9771 or visit www.SigTheatre.org
Playing through April 29