If the world ever runs out of ellipses, we’ll likely have Annie Baker, the 37-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Fellow, to thank. John, an obtuse and enervating emotional mystery set in the knicknack-knackered living room of a bed and breakfast outside Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is the fifth of her plays to be staged locally. (Sixth, if we count her translation of Uncle Vanya.) This production, like her previous play The Flick, comes to the region in a brilliantly designed staging by Joe Calarco for Signature Theatre. And it gives you ample, nay generous, nay obsequious opportunity to notice, nay observe, nay apprehend just what a bravura feat of design it is. The leaders of John’s scenic, sonic, and lighting teams—Paige Hathaway, Kenny Neal, and Andrew Cissna, respectively—should take a bow.
Baker’s languid, silence-filled character studies are meant to challenge our throttled attention spans, and to remind us that the words we speak are notoriously unreliable vessels for what we mean. Because she once held a job in reality TV, it’s tempting to read her patient, humane plays as an attempt to right the cosmic scales for having been a collaborator in the 21st century’s cruelest and grossest art form. The first production of her Pulitzer-winning The Flick five years ago sparked a minor revolt among audiences, enough of whom complained about the play’s length and glacial pacing to prompt a letter from the artistic director of New York’s Playwrights Horizons defending his decision to produce it.
Philistines, you sniff. These are the mouth-breathers and Tomatometer-readers who look at a Pollock or a Rothko and say “My kid could paint that,” surely.
But without resorting to the stopped-clock metaphor—not something we need worry about in John, as Nancy Robinette’s daffy innkeeper, Mertis, interrupts her other pulse-quickening household chores to wind her grandfather clock not once, but several times—I must acknowledge that even philistines are sometimes right. I’ve seen all of Baker’s plays save for last year’s The Antipodes, and John is the first time I’ve come away feeling the playwright has demanded more time than her material warrants. At 210 minutes (including two intermissions), John adds a quarter-hour to The Flick’s already plus-sized footprint, and is approximately a quarter as rewarding. The Flick had laughs and revelations. It felt true to life. John is all bizarre confessions and blind alleys.
Baker has planted clues-or-are-they as to John’s animating idea everywhere. There’s a more than casual suggestion that this cozy, doll-filled bed and breakfast which, oh, by the way, was once a Civil War hospital with severed limbs piled up outside, is haunted. Mertis claims to have an ill husband living with her, though we never see any evidence the guy exists. Her blind friend Genevieve (Ilona Dulaski) visits sometimes, sitting alone for hours in the darkness of Mertis’ living room, empathizing with the dolls. (“To be a piece of plastic or glass and to be shaped into a human form and trapped! With one expression on your face! Frozen!”) But all Baker’s quizzical allusions feel in this case like a writer gone knock-kneed under the weight of her fame.
Baker has always lavished her attention on characters who are stunted somehow: the adult acting students of Circle Mirror Transformation; the stoned, underachieving dumpster divers of The Aliens; the guy in The Flick who’s pushing 40 and sweeping up popcorn for a living. But she’s never drawn anyone who’s as unpleasant to be trapped in a room with as Jenny and Elias (Anna Moon and Jonathan Feuer), the late-twenties or early-thirties couple whose excruciating slow-motion breakup after three years together gives John what meek emotional propulsion it has. You feel bad for both of them, and worse for the next person from whom either of them will extract an irreplaceable six to 36 months. He’s a drummer; she writes questions for a game show. Even their jobs are annoying.
To invest in these characters we must at least buy that they wanted to fuck each other at one time in their lives. I never believed that for one of the show’s 12,600 seconds. And after all that time invested—ours, not theirs—their story ends less with a climax than with a deflating punchline.
The fault isn’t all Baker’s. Moon has only a single stage credit listed in John’s program (for the Hollywood Fringe Festival), but one needn’t check their resumes to see that her three castmates are all substantially more experienced and at ease with Baker’s geologic rhythms. You can practically see her counting Mississippis between her lines. (Stage directions for Baker’s The Aliens, which Studio Theatre staged in 2012, specify that a “pause” is at least three seconds, while a “silence” should be between five and 10. Maybe Baker shows don’t need directors so much as referees.) It’s telling that Feuer is much stronger performing with Robinette, who can encode a half-dozen emotions within the word “oh,” and with Dulaski, who’s having more fun than anybody, than in his scenes opposite Moon.
But like I said: The design work is sublime. The illusion of a midwinter sunset splashing through the windows into Mertis’ crowded parlor, or of a car approaching outside in the middle, are all utterly convincing. The way the voices of the actors bounce around the house when they’re speaking offstage (while remaining fully audible) gives us the intimacy of eavesdropping. The uncanny likeness of lived experience arrives like an epiphany in Baker’s better plays, which are among the best of the 21st century. It’s not me, John. It’s you.
At Signature Theatre to April 29. 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40–$94. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.