I seem to be having a mini-run of overlong plays that require me to sit for three-plus hours after which I still don’t know what I saw. In July, it was Yukio Ninagawa’s Kafka on the Shore at three hours with an intermission (see my coming ROT report on 11 September) and now comes Annie Baker’s John, the opener of the Signature Theatre Company’s 2015-16 season, which runs a whopping three-and-a-quarter hours with two intermissions. (When was the last time you saw that?) In both experiences, I never figured out what the playwrights or directors wanted to say to me: Kafka is adapted from a highly metaphysical novel of the same title by Haruki Murakami, which surely accounts for its obtuseness, but Baker’s latest work is shot through with intentional mysticism (contrived to my ear) and an apparent willfulness to reveal as little as possible before, during, and after the performance. (Looking for a brief description of the plot, all I could find outside of the reviews, which had only just come out, was the theater’s cryptic promo: “The week after Thanksgiving. A Bed & Breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A cheerful innkeeper. A young couple struggling to stay together. Thousands of inanimate objects, watching.”) The New York Times’ Alexis Soloski reports that when asked about John even when it was completing rehearsals, Baker “wouldn’t share many particulars”; Jesse Green wrote in New York that she wouldn’t even describe it for him back in May. Even Baker’s professional and personal background is only available in sketchy outlines and Soloski observes that the playwright waves off personal questions with a “No, no, no!”
My subscription partner, Diana, and I went to the Pershing Square Signature Center for the 7:30 performance of John on Friday evening, 14 August, on the Irene Diamond Stage, STC’s large, 294-seat, proscenium house. Spectators enter through the rear doors of the theater rather than the usual side entrance down front. (The only other time I’ve done that was for Charles L. Mee’s Big Love, when the rear entrance was dressed to look like an Italian sukkah under which the audience passed; see my ROT report on 18 March.) The Signature production of John, a world première, started previews on 22 July and opened on 11 August; it’s currently scheduled to close on 6 September (extended from 30 August). Baker’s fifth produced play (she’s a 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winner for The Flick, currently running in a commercial revival at the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village) is her first production as a member of STC’s Residency Five program. (One of three residencies at STC, now celebrating its 25th season, this residency program offers emerging playwrights three full productions of new works over a five-year period. The other two programs are Residency One, for established writers, and the Legacy Program, for former playwrights-in-residence who are invited to return with a new or reimagined script.)
I could find little about Baker’s biography; Alexis Soloski reports that neither the writer nor her director, Sam Gold, like to reveal details of their private lives or their work together. The bare bones are that she was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in April 1981, which makes her 34. Her family—New York Jewish mother, Irish Catholic father, and older brother (also a writer—a novelist)—moved to Amherst where she and her brother were raised “by hippies in an incredibly politically correct, we-all-love-each-other, world-peace household.” She went on to get a bachelor’s degree from the Tisch School of the Arts’ Department of Dramatic Writing at New York University and then a Master of Fine Art from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, where she went to work with playwright Mac Wellman. What drew her to writing, Baker isn’t sure—neither parent was a writer—just that it was something she always wanted to do. Playwriting is even more of a mystery, she says, though as a schoolgirl she enjoyed participating in school productions. It wasn’t the acting that drew her, she says, “It was dealing with the theatre text that gave me pleasure, and the staging of the live event.”
In fact, that’s what she says The Flick is partly about. Jesse Green reports in Elle magazine that Baker feels that “the theater, in its liveness, has a crucial, distinct function.” The dramatist explains: “So many plays are trying to be like film, like the needy kid who keeps saying ‘Like me, like me!’ and falling flat on his face.” What she wants, Green reports in another profile of the playwright, is for plays “to marshal the ancient resources of the stage toward experiences only it can provide.” ROTters may recognize this as my second criterion for good theater—I call it “theatricality.” (The first criterion is that a good play must do more than just tell a story. See my play reports “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Children's Theater in America,” 25 November 2009; “A Disappearing Number (Lincoln Center Festival 2010),” 8 August 2010; “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” 27 May 2011; “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide,” 6 June 2011; “Peter Brook’s Tierno Bokar,” 30 August 2011; “’Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” 4 April 2012; “Red,” 4 March 2012; “Painting Churches,” 14 April 2012; “Lying Lesson,” 6 April 2013; or “New Jerusalem,” 20 April 2014.)
Her first professional play, Body Awareness, premièred at the Atlantic Theater Company in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood in 2008. Directed by Karen Kohlhaas, the play received Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations and brought the dramatist to national attention. In 2009, Baker followed this production with Circle Mirror Transformation at Playwrights Horizons, her first collaboration with director Sam Gold who has since directed Baker’s next four premières: The Aliens (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 2010; 2010 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize finalist and winner, with Circle Mirror Transformation, of the 2010 Obie Award for Best New American Play), her adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (Soho Repertory Theatre, 2012), The Flick (Playwrights Horizons, 2013; the 2013 Obie Award for Playwriting and 2014 Pulitzer Prize), and now John. Gold also directed a 2010 staged reading of Nocturama, so far unmounted in a full production, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, and the current Off-Broadway revival of The Flick. (Since they began working together, Baker has had no other director—she directed the workshop of her own new play, The Last of the Little Hours, at the Sundance Institute’s 2014 Theatre Lab in Utah—but Gold has had successful productions of plays such as Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s Fun Home—Off-Broadway, 2013; Broadway, 2015; Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical—and numerous other Off-Broadway and Broadway plays.) Baker has won a number of honors, fellowships, and prizes for her writing. She currently also teaches playwriting at NYU, at Barnard College, and in the MFA program at the Southampton campus of Stony Brook University, part of the State University of New York. Her plays have been produced all around the U.S. and in many countries abroad and four of her plays that are set in Vermont (The Aliens, Circle Mirror Transformation, Nocturama, Body Awareness) have been anthologized as The Vermont Plays (Theatre Communications Group, 2012).
“I’m someone who spots extremely theatrical moments in everyday life that usually go unnoticed,” the playwright avers. According to Nathan Heller of the New Yorker, Baker “wants life onstage to be so vivid, natural, and emotionally precise that it bleeds into the audience’s visceral experience of time and space.” As Sam Gold characterizes her playwriting, “It feels easy, casual, and unconsidered. But the truth is that every breath, every hiccup in a thought, every tense inarticulate silence is orchestrated like a carefully composed piece of music.” Heller, a staff writer for the New Yorker who writes on various topics, continues: “Drawing on the immediacy of overheard conversation, she has pioneered a style of theatre made to seem as untheatrical as possible, while using the tools of the stage to focus audience attention.” Those tools include not just the dialogue (including silences), but also the actors’ movements and gestures, the costumes, set décor, music, sound, lights, and “the whole immersive apparatus of the modern stage.” When she writes, she now consciously attempts to rid her work of “conventional dramatic style”; the first things she thinks about, she says, are “all of the things that I think are integral to writing for the theatre”: “physical space and time and duration and design.” (This is very reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’s “plastic theater,” about which I wrote on ROT in “‘The Sculptural Drama’: Tennessee Williams’s Plastic Theater,” 9 May 2012.)
Though critics have labeled her both a “Realist” and a “Naturalist,” the playwright rejects those terms. (Charles Isherwood called her work “micro-naturalism,” and the meticulous and detailed sets for her plays have even been described as “hyperreal.”) She doesn’t feel there is a name that describes what she does. “We need different terms,” Baker insists. “The old ones are outmoded. They were outmoded when Chekhov wrote The Seagull.” Her writing, asserts Heller, seems “as unplotted as real life” and then “breaks abruptly into surreal transcendence.” “Nothing huge or overtly dramatic happens,” avers Jesse Green in Elle magazine; nevertheless, “. . . a real world, full of improbable feeling, arises from minimal information.” In the earlier Green profile, the journalist asks: “Where is the argument? Where is the exposition?” He explains, “Such ‘resistant’ materials force the audience to open itself in a new way to what it experiences. Some people do; some walk out.” Baker’s plays comprise what Heller calls “intensely realistic elements—the studiously plausible scenery, the lack of obviously purposive action—but they don’t always add up to a realistic effect.” The playwright “zooms in” on the tiny, revealing details of ordinary life, says Adam Greenfield, the director of new-play development at Playwrights Horizons. Further, Baker’s plays don’t come to usual kinds of conclusions where things are wrapped up in a neat package. “I get frustrated when theatre tries to make it make sense,” the writer argues. “Sometimes people go to the theatre expecting articulated ideas, a lesson and dots for them to connect. The play is telling you what to think and I’m just not interested in that.”
Like many avant-gardists and postmodernists of the late 20th century, Baker has come, since her collaboration with director Sam Gold, to conceive of her plays as what she calls “blueprints” which are only finished during the rehearsal process. The playwright acknowledges that work on a new play always starts with “the image of a place”—for John, for example, it was the bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—then she thinks “about an actor I want to write for”—“the great” Georgia Engel for John. (The process often begins with a road trip with Gold and the scenic designer; before writing John, Baker, Gold, and Mimi Lien went to Gettysburg and photographed several B&B’s in meticulous detail.) The characters of her scripts, Baker senses, are “already there and I have to get their voices right.” That often comes from the actors for whom she’s writing, whose “cadences and personality lead me to the character.” The work she and Gold create with the designers and actors, says Alexis Soloski in the Times, is “a kind of theatrical pointillism: Observed up close, it isn’t anything like real life, but onstage it looks and feels and sounds that way.” (In contrast, New York Theater’s Jonathan Mandell asserted, John “comes off instead like an exercise in theatrical pointillism . . . without as much concern that the dots add up to a clear and satisfying overall picture.”) Gold admires the “microscopic lens on the world” Baker’s plays wield and observes, “Everything has to be right. Everything has to be honest. Everything has to be full.”
Playwright and director “dive into the mundane and ordinary and reveal the extraordinary in it,” said Signature’s artistic director, James Houghton. Baker’s literary aim is to look at what Heller called “what’s left unsaid along the edges of conversation.” Green notes that her plays “feature as much silence as speech.” This is a hallmark of Baker’s dramaturgy, the long, often awkward silences: the trailing line that’s left unfinished, the unspoken response to a question or observation—usually accompanied by blank stares as if one character didn’t understand what the other said or the language she’s speaking. It’s evident in John, as are wordless scenes. In a rehearsal of John, Soloski observes, Gold admonished actress Hong Chau to “recommit to a pause, making it longer and more awkward.” He told her, “I know it must feel really unnatural.” Green characterizes these silences as “cryptic,” but I often saw them as just empty. Matthew Maher, an actor in both the Playwrights Horizons début of The Flick and the Barrow Street revival, remarked that they are “sometimes a gray area between an awkward moment between actors and an awkward moment between characters,” and Gold, telling the actors that they were supposed to feel that way, cautioned Maher, “You have to learn to embrace that bad feeling.”
John takes place entirely in a Victorian house in Gettysburg that’s been converted into a bed-and-breakfast. The innkeeper is Mertis Katherine Graven (Engel, beloved by many from her days as Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show of the 1970s), who insists that people call her Kitty—though almost no one ever does. The house is filled with scores of ceramic miniatures, dolls (which line the central staircase and landing), stuffed animals, figurines, a grandfather clock, and a lighted Christmas tree. The story’s set between Thanksgiving and Christmas. A CD player (disguised as a tiny 1950s-era jukebox) constantly provides a background of classical music, and occasionally, a player piano under the stairs starts up all on its own. Is the place haunted? Mertis doesn’t think so but her friend Genevieve Marduk (Lois Smith), blind, spooky, and unpredictable, is sure it is. Jenny Chung (Hong Chau) and her boyfriend of three years, Elias Schreiber-Hoffman (Christopher Abbott) arrive at the B&B on their way home to Brooklyn from Thanksgiving with Jenny’s family in Ohio. As soon as Jenny and Elias are shown to their room upstairs, it’s clear from a muffled tiff leaking through the floorboards that they’re an unhappy couple with serious problems—or problems they’ve made serious—to work out. (One reviewer said of this couple, “Baker feeds us the dissolution of this relationship with the precision of a sadist pulling the wings off of a fly.”) During the night, Jenny comes downstairs (as she will again the next night) to sleep on the couch; she complains of being cold, but we don’t really know why.
Mertis tells the couple that she’s caring for her ailing husband, but we never see him. Mertis serves as the Stage Manager, in the sense of Our Town rather than the real-life show-runner: she rotates the hands on the grandfather clock to move us forward in time, as the living room lights and the sunlight through the windows dim or brighten, and she opens and closes the curtain (by hand) for each act. She controls time and seals or opens her world to us. We have to wait for the second act to meet Genevieve, who sits motionless at a café table in the breakfast nook (called Paris just to add to the forced coziness and Gemütlichkeit of the place) expounding on life and “the time I went crazy.” Genevieve tells about John, her former husband (whom we never meet), a bully whom she believes invaded her mind and soul even after she left him. Jenny reveals that she once knew a man named John, whom we later learn was an abusive and possessive older lover, to which Genevieve snaps, “Everyone knows someone named John.” All this is where Baker took her title for the play.
Of course, the play’s story, which is teased out in tiny bits in haphazard order (and which actually contains many more incidents and details I haven’t recounted), isn’t the same as its theme or point. This is where I failed. Three-and-a-quarter hours is a long time to sit in confusion. Diana began complaining as soon as the first act-break came along and I was sure she was going to suggest leaving—which I wouldn’t have done—but she didn’t. Plays can go downhill as they go along, but they almost never improve in the second act (or, in this case, the second or third), and by the middle of act two, I’d given up any hope that Baker would let us in on the point of John. She never did, and Diana insisted that the dramatist didn’t have one. I suspect she at least thought she did but either didn’t know how to reveal it or had deliberately buried it beneath so many layers of misdirection and mystery, including hints of the supernatural—Elias goes on a nighttime cemetery ghost tour and captures a ghostly blur in the photo he took in a child’s bedroom of a restored Civil War-era house, and Mertis relates that her inn had been a hospital for Union soldiers and rumors had it that mountains of amputated arms and legs were piled so high outside the windows that they blocked the light—that you’d need a crib sheet to suss it out. When asked about her themes, Jesse Green reports, she replies: “Of course you want your plays to say something. But you want them to say something that could never be said in a sentence, because then you’d write a sentence and not a play.” The play let out a little before eleven and, after Diana and I went for a snack afterwards, I didn’t get home until around 1 a.m. and still didn’t know what John is about. (I doubt I ever will, either. I think I’m not going to be a fan of Baker’s.)
A tactic Baker seems to like is raising issues that aren’t explained or questions that aren’t answered. (I wonder if this technique is related to the playwright’s tendency not to talk about her life or her work.) For instance, do you know what a Neo-Platonist is? I didn’t and I still don’t after trying to look it up. (I thought it might be revealing, but I’ll never know now. It’s apparently a mixture of Platonic concepts and Eastern mysticism. Go know, right?) Mertis identifies herself as one, but just as Elias is about to ask what that is, they’re interrupted and it’s never explained. So here we have an unanswered (and actually unasked) question inside an impenetrable play. John’s a little like a set of Russian nesting dolls in that respect—one unanswered/unanswerable question inside another. Now, do you know what a wahwah bird is? It’s a mythical bird that lives at the North Pole and flies in ever-decreasing concentric circles crying wah-wah until it flies up its own ass. That’s how I found John.
Let’s talk about the production; at least I don’t have to interpret that. Mimi Lien, after traveling with Baker and Gold to Gettysburg and taking “exhaustive photos of several bed-and-breakfasts—the wallpaper, the hand-embroidered samplers, the spooky stuffed animals,” designed a prop-crazy set of a fussy living room for Mertis’s guesthouse. (The room is an old-fashioned box set, with three walls and a ceiling, which encourages the impression that the B&B is a closed world.) The sofa and overstuffed chairs are all covered in floral-print fabric and Paris, the breakfast nook at stage right, has three or four little white metal café tables with matching chairs. The chair cushions and table coverings are also flowery and lace squares are laid over the tablecloths and there’s a cozy little fireplace in the upstage Paris wall. All around the room are the tchotchkes, making the place look like a demented toy-and-knickknack shop—or a hoarder’s paradise. Up stage, slightly left of the center, is a lighted and decorated Christmas tree (whose little white bulbs occasionally go on or off at will) and the grandfather clock that Mertis looks after is directly up center, next to the door that leads to the kitchen and Mertis’s (and, I suppose, George’s) room. The staircase to the second floor, which leads up to a landing before disappearing into the flies, is straight up stage just to the right of the center—leaving an alcove in which resides the player piano. The bannister is wrapped in greenery and more Christmas lights and each step is home to a doll or stuffed animal. All around are several wall sconces and faux-Tiffany lamps, the ones that dim or brighten when Mertis moves the clock hands. The decor is precisely arranged and I got the feeling Mertis knows where each object is and where it came from.
Special recognition goes to Props Master Noah Mease and his assistant Becky Parker Geist for their work finding all these items—there must be hundreds—and setting them so precisely. “Design,” Baker insists, “is 70 percent of the theatergoing experience.” The lighting design of Mark Barton and Bray Poor’s soundscape are also integral to the artificial friendliness of the inn, as well as its undercurrent of spookiness; the magical dimming and brightening of the lights when Mertis uses the clock to reset the time, even though I know it’s a deliberate stage effect, is nonetheless eerie, along with the willful holiday lights and player piano. Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes could not be more apt—Mertis’s flowered dresses, neat, prim, and old-fashioned just like her; Genevieve’s proto-hippie shifts; Jenny’s and Elias’s Brooklyn yuppie casual—helping to establish each character’s personality visually as the actors do through behavior. Like Lien’s set, Hostetter’s clothing is precise and detailed and meticulously conceived. In line with Williams’s plastic-theater concept, the visual and aural life of Baker’s plays is as important to a production as the text, the acting, and the directing.
The performances, clearly under the careful tutelage of director Gold, were all technically excellent. John (and, I presume, all of Baker’s writing) is the kind of play that demands an actor buy into the style as well as the verbal and emotional content. Everyone has to be guided by the same playbook, like Brecht-manqué (and Brecht actually did have a playbook—his Modelbücher). Some actors chafe, not being allowed to follow all their own instincts but toeing someone else’s line—more like classic dance on a simplistic level than modern acting. (Of course, there are many theater forms in which codified acting is an integral element of the art—Kabuki, Noh, Kathakali, Beijing Opera, Wayang Orang—but it isn’t a prominent technique in Western theater. Brecht, of course, was a stand-alone artist and had been greatly influenced by Asian performance.) As in these forms, there’s little room in John for approximation or winging it. Like the settings and the tech, the acting has to be precise. (“I have a really fanatical side,” Baker confesses.) The New Yorker’s Heller observes, “Onstage, Baker exercises meticulous control” and characterizes the performance style of her plays as “the invisible precision that’s become a hallmark of Baker and Gold’s style.”
The acting in Baker’s play doesn’t look codified or choreographed, but the contribution of the director is strongly felt here. (The work of Baker and Gold is closer than the customary writer-director relationship, even the legendary pairing of Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan in its heyday. It’s almost a creative partnership like that of a lyricist and a composer or a team of writers like Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, or Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse; reviewer Jesse Green called Gold Baker’s “joined-at-the-hip director.”) But while I recognize the technical achievement of Baker, Gold, and their cast and crew, I can’t help finding that the style produced, no matter how well executed, reads artificial, contrived, and empty. The portentous silences, the secrets and mysteries, the eccentric behavior all adds up for me to affectation and gimmickry, the equivalent of what one of my theater profs used to call “Hamlet on roller skates.”
Individual performances are still important, of course, but it’s also fascinating to watch accomplished veterans like Engel and Smith adjust their talents to realize Baker’s and Gold’s requirements. As director, Gold sees his job as “translating her cryptic silences and fussy requests into terms the actors can work with,” but that’s a simplistic view for public consumption; he really is, as Vsevolod Meyerhold held, the “author” of the production as he “calibrates the declarations and pauses and elisions with knife-edge precision.” Some actors shine despite the restraints, flourishing within the challenge. I’ve always likened it to writing a sonnet: the form is precise and confining, but some poets embrace the strictures and create unique artistic expressions nonetheless. The four cast members of STC’s John are of this caliber.
The standouts in the cast of four are Georgia Engel as Mertis and Lois Smith, truly one of this country’s top performers, as Genevieve. Smith’s prominence here comes from her absolute command of any role she plays, irrespective of the quality of the rest of the production. (I’ve seen Smith a number of times now, and reported on her work in Tony Kushner’s The Illusion, posted on ROT on 1 July 2011; Sam Shephard’s Heartless, 10 September 2012; a 2005 production of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, 25 May 2013; and Foote’s The Old Friends, 10 October 2013.) Even though her part in John seems almost superfluous—Genevieve stirs the pot a bit, but isn’t a strong presence except for Smith’s performance—her characterization, the idiosyncrasy of the persona she creates, is stunning. Smith’s Genevieve is the polar opposite of Engel’s Mertis, a timid and soft-spoken woman, and Smith’s intestinal strength, sureness, and authority on stage provides a backbone to the play that it would otherwise lack. (Don’t confuse this backbone with the “spine” Harold Clurman describes in On Directing. Baker doesn’t seem to write plays with that kind of supportive throughline.) Smith takes hold of Genevieve and projects her out into the house, even the little surprise curtain speech she delivers at the end of act two, as if she were playing Queen Margaret in Richard III—no equivocating, no if’s, and’s or but’s. (That fourth wall-breaking interlude is the most overtly non-realistic element in John—evidently the only one Baker’s ever used up till now—outside Mertis’s clock-keeping and curtain-pulling duties.) Even Smith, though, can’t disguise the sense that Genevieve is a contrivance, a sort of latter-day Tiresias inserted to jolt the proceedings, but the actress commits to the role and make it thrum.
As Mertis, Engel, who doesn’t have Smith’s range, is an overgrown baby doll. Of course, this impression is advanced inevitably by her little-girl voice, well know from Engel’s past work, including (perhaps especially) MTM’s Georgette Franklin. Eternally up-beat and content, Engel’s Mertis has a permanent smile—not dissimilar to a doll’s, by the way—and can’t seem to raise her voice above a semi-whisper. When Mertis goes into one of Baker’s signature silences, Engel retains a blank look on her face as if someone had paused the tape. All these attributes combine to make Mertis seem not only ditzy, but not too bright as well—but the character cracks that image now and then by saying something a little brainy, and Engel, with an absolute commitment to the role, maintains her otherworldly demeanor even then, as if the words that came out of her mouth surprise her as well. Even with the hint—well, sometimes more than a hint—of sinisterness Baker wrote into the character (she reads H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” to Genevieve), Engel still comes off as a sweet little biddy. Just don’t let her come up behind you in the dark with a kitchen knife or maybe spout some incomprehensible words (like the ones in her journal) to one of her dolls.
Christopher Abbott and Hong Chau, who play the young couple Elias Schreiber-Hoffman (an homage, do you suppose, to Liev Schreiber and Philip Seymour Hoffman?) and Jenny Chung, can’t raise their characters above the level of neurotic and whiny 30-somethings; they’re closest to bad Woody Allen characters who never grow out of their annoying foibles. Baker is reputed to write characters who are just everyday people, like her audience; she doesn’t like the adjective ‘ordinary,’ however: “The distinction between ordinary and extraordinary is bogus. I want to erase the line between the two.” One potential problem with subjects like that, though, is that their problems, which seem monumental to them, just aren’t especially interesting. Elias and Jenny wallow in their inability to communicate and be honest with one another, finding slights and wounds where healthier folks would just move on. Abbott and Chau play this well enough, following the path stalwartly—but they don’t really make much of it. (Remember, I had to sit with them for over three hours and listen to them kvetch.) That’s soon grating and Elias and Jenny don’t come to terms with their issues. They can’t, of course, because Baker doesn’t write conclusions, just final scenes—and no actors, no matter how talented, can change that. Still, Abbott and Chau don’t imbue Elias and Jenny with a spark that might have made them worth spending so much time around.
There are a lot of reviews on line for this show, probably because John’s a world première by a newly-minted Pulitzer Prize-winner. Several reviewers ventured guesses at what John was about, but even they were vague and unconvincing to me. The rest confessed, like I did, that they had no clue. Despite their admitted lack of understanding, the reviewers mostly had praise for the play and Baker’s work in general, which sounds like a case of the emperor’s new clothes to me. (‘I have no idea what she’s saying, but it must be profound. She won a Pulitzer, you know.’) Now let’s see what they had to say.
“If you’re looking for easy answers, ‘John’ will keep you busy,” warned Elisabeth Vincentelli in her first statement in the New York Post, noting that the play is “packed with cryptic conversations between long silences.” “‘John’ is what you make of it,” Vincentelli informed her readers, guessing, “It could be a Freudian fairy tale in which youngsters find a strange house with its own rules . . . . Or it could be about women dealing with repressed traumas,” and summed up with “my guesses are as good as yours.” The world of John, according to Newsday’s Linda Winer, is “in current Annie Baker territory” with “many long pauses and painfully quiet stretches.” This play, Winer averred, however, “is weirder, nuttier, scarier than any Baker play I've seen. It is positively gothic—mysteries within mysteries, ghost stories on top of ghost stories.” The “[w]eird, scary, slow-motion play,” said the Long Island reviewer, is “hypnotic,” but “never actually conclusive” which is nonetheless “riveting, unpredictable, altogether human theater.”
“Annie Baker’s odd and compelling play, ‘John,’ reinforces her reputation as an American original, a playwright in whose hands the mundane becomes extraordinary,” proclaimed Joe Dziemianowicz of New York’s Daily News. For instance, Baker “makes her own rules,” Dziemianowicz noted, filling “slow-mo stillness with big emotional stakes.” The Newsman asserted that the world of the B&B as a “keenly observed universe proves a fascinating place to be.” The Daily News reviewer, calling the play “this disarming and consistently engaging work,” found that John “is an everyday title for a play that’s anything but ordinary. It takes a familiar story and sets it to life with its own beat—and timetable.” Baker’s play, Dziemianowicz decided, is “about truth and intimacy and how relationships nurture and gnaw—sometimes viciously and endlessly” and its “key” is, “Relationships can do that, haunt you.” (Ummm . . . aren’t about half of all modern dramas about that—like, maybe, Splendor in the Grass, or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or even A Period of Adjustment? Most of Sam Shepard’s plays are about that and Neil Simon’s are, too, except they’re comedies.)
In am New York, Matt Windman declared that Baker and Gold “have a remarkable ability to break the basic rules of drama and get away with their transgressions. Not only that, they succeed beautifully.” Under Gold’s direction, said Windman, Baker’s “plays become mesmerizing, extremely detailed character portraits where every silent pause is meaningful and time passes quickly—even with three-hour-plus running times.” (The amNY review-writer and I will have to differ on that.) John, the journalist thought, is a “sorrowful but good-humored play . . . packed with seemingly trivial small talk and mysteries that are never resolved.” (“At least we eventually learn who John is,” Windman quipped. To which I amend: Maybe.) “Nothing much has happened by the end,” observed the amNY writer. “Nevertheless, ‘John’ is thoroughly captivating.”
The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood called John a “haunting and haunted meditation,” adding that Baker “stretches her talents in intriguing if sometimes baffling new directions.” “The membrane between life and death, the world of things and the realm of spirits,” continued the Timesman, “seems strangely permeable in Ms. Baker’s appealingly odd—and perhaps less appealingly long—drama, which is laced with shivery suggestions of a ghost story.” Isherwood praised Gold for John’s dialogue, which is “orchestrated with intuitive delicacy” but warned, “Many will be perplexed by the play’s obscurities; others bewitched by a writer who dares to raise large philosophical questions . . . while at the same time drawing characters in such piercingly specific emotional detail.” Isherwood concluded that, like many great works of art, John has the effect of “bringing mysterious comfort for reasons we cannot always articulate, even as they underscore how sad and solitary life often feels.”
“‘John’ is full of poetic, handsomely wrought scenes that ought to add up to more than they do,” wrote Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal. “The problem,” the WSJ reviewer explained, “. . . is that Ms. Baker has drowned them in a sea of portentous pauses and protracted silences . . . that are meant to be atmospheric but end up being numbing.” He added that “Sam Gold’s delicate staging makes the results just about tolerable,” but concluded, “I’m sure there’s a beautiful play in there somewhere, . . . but I can’t remember when I last encountered a playwright whose great gifts were so completely undercut by a greater lack of dramaturgical self-discipline.”
John, said Tom Sellar in the Village Voice, “stretches a series of eerie unknowns across three acts” with “teetering plot points—teasingly unresolved” so that “the play steadily accrues possible symbols that never develop.” While director Gold “labors to make the real-domestic-time aesthetic work with the drama’s portents,” Sellar found that “the production falters because it often feels stagy or contrived rather than disarming.” The review-writer for the Voice concluded, “After threatening in the first two acts to coalesce into another kind of play—one promising poetic or mystical revelations—John ultimately settles for very smart psychology.”
“Annie Baker’s ‘John’ . . . is so good on so many levels,” declared the New Yorker’s Hilton Als, “that it casts a unique and brilliant light.” He goes on to compliment all the elements of Baker’s play and Gold’s production—the acting, setting, dramaturgy—but saves his highest praise for Baker’s depiction, as a woman writer, of the female characters in John (her other major plays have all centered on male characters), particularly Mertis and Jenny. In New York magazine, Jesse Green asked, “And what is Baker up to, filling three acts and three and a half hours with the homely minutiae of love, loss, and hospitality?” His answer: “Quite a lot, it turns out, even though (as is typical for Baker’s plays) you first have to submit to a radical reorientation of time and scale to get there.” For “Baker is trying to extend to characters in extremis,” Green observed, “the intense realism—not stage realism but real realism—usually denied them in plays.” Still, the man from New York asserted, “John hovers on the edge of metaphysics. . . . With no special effects except that player piano, she’s produced a real ghost story, which is to say a semblance of life.” Ultimately, however, he found that John “is also so expansive that it becomes, in the third act, when you want it to buckle down, a bit unsatisfyingly diffuse.”
While praising the performances and set dressing, Variety’s Marilyn Stasio complained, “Baker plays true to form in ‘John’ by depending on subtle suggestion rather than definitive action to make her point. But what, precisely, is her point here? If there’s an answer to that, it rests with the dolls.” For Stasio, the central event of John is the conversation among the three women in Paris about dolls and how they each feel about them, but the Variety reviewer saw in that scene that “the only takeaway from all that buildup is the strong intimation that Jenny is getting ready to break up with Elias for treating her like an inanimate object. And while it’s a valid conclusion to draw about a character, we could have had this whole conversation in a coffee shop.” In his Hollywood Reporter review, Jesse Oxfeld wrote, in contrast to Stasio, that John is a “thoughtful, unhurried consideration of relationships that’s worth sticking around for.” “This is a big show . . . but also a humble, cerebral one, without bells and whistles,” continued Oxfeld, adding, “John is sometimes wry, but unlike Baker’s other plays, it’s not especially funny.” For the HR reviewer, the play is an examination of the question Elias asks, but which Oxfeld posited that all the characters, as well as we in the auditorium, also ponder: “Have you ever been in something and just like had no idea whether you should go or stay?” (I’d bet that some in the audience asked themselves that very question about being in the theater that evening.) In Time Out New York, David Cote explained that he brought up the play’s running time “not to warn you about potential boredom (in the ordinary sense), but because duration is [the] key component of the experience, which lodges in your memory, emitting time-delayed puffs of meaning.” After detailing the strange and eerie objects and events in John, the man from TONY admitted, “Like much in the cozy yet unnerving world Baker has created here . . . I don’t quite get the significance. But if I lower the lights and wait,” he offers, “some glimmering form might appear around the corner.”
Among the cyber reviewers, David Gordon on TheaterMania, calling John “a conundrum-wrapped enigma,” labeled it “a challenging piece to interpret, one that will leave even the most perceptive audience members shell-shocked in ways good and bad.” Gordon warned that as “the play gets weirder and weirder, it becomes harder and harder to keep track of what story is being told” because Baker “has a tendency to bite off more than she can chew.” John has “a surfeit of themes and ideas, and [a] tendency to settle on none of them” which “dilutes the play’s overall impact.” The TM review-writer, however, also acknowledged that “there's also much to be thankful for,” including Lien’s set design (“so realistic that Signature could potentially charge admission for an overnight stay”), Gold’s directing (deriving “so much out of so little”), Hostetter’s costumes, Barton’s “spellbinding” lighting, and Poor’s “eerie” soundscape. The cyber writer ended by thanking Baker for writing and STC for presenting John, which he pronounced “isn't an easy work to sit through.” Jonathan Mandell of New York Theater, calling the STC production of John “an exquisitely acted puzzle of a play,” said it “seems to be aiming to be some kind of ghost story, but winds up falling short of any kind of fully realized drama.” “Too much of the play, however,” explained Mandell, “feels best suited for an assignment in a college literature course.”
On Talkin’ Broadway, Matthew Murray practically hadn’t a single negative word to say about John, the writing or the production. (He had one slight reservation in the region of performance, but dismissed it himself. I suspect he’s a fan of Baker—or the Baker-Gold team-up.) He labeled this play “perhaps . . . the best to date” of the “masterful minimalist storytellers’” collaborations. “Baker,” Murray asserted “builds up the suspense so gradually, but so completely, that eventually anything that pierces it invokes shivers” and expected that “you will undoubtedly find yourself on the edge of your seat during most of” the play’s extensive running time. The playwright, the TB review-writer declared, “displays as an artist and a technician a total confidence and self-assuredness in John.” He noted that Baker “hasn't deployed a single gimmick, but instead uses to the fullest every tool at her disposal.” John, Murray concluded, “plumbs the soul, head, and heart so more fully, and more excitingly, than even the spookiest ghost story could possibly manage.”
On CurtainUp, Simon Saltzman called John “haunting, intense, surreal, and also demanding” and suggested, “To some it’s a commendable conceit. Others will find ‘no there there,’” even warning, “Audiences for whom life on the stage is best served in fast forward, are likely to have a hard time with Baker's plays.” “A splendid cast under Sam Gold, Baker's director of choice,” wrote Saltzman, “are co-creators of a mood that will have you chortling one minute and sending shivers down your spine the next.” The CU reviewer affirmed, “The title”—which he refused to explain—“may be familiar but the play is like none other,” although “it’s not easy to sum up with a simple ‘here’s what it's all about.’” Tulis McCall, on New York Theatre Guide, praised the performances—especially Engel’s—and the set, but complained, “Oh yes there are pauses. Pauses and pauses and pauses. 127 that I counted in the actual script. . . . [In this play,] these silences feel contrived. They take over the play and have a life of their own. One gets the feeling that the actors are actually counting out beats in their heads while they wait for the appropriate moment for the next line to be spoken.” McCall concluded with the wish, “Perhaps as [Baker] gathers speed her dialogue pacing will pick up steam as well. One can hope.”
I don’t usually quote a review at length—it’s happened once or twice, but it’s uncommon and contrary to my rationale for the review round-up. But here, one writer seems to have caught my response to John particularly clearly. Michael Dale, describing the hallmarks of an Annie Baker play, wrote on Broadway World:
There’s the commitment to natural pacing that results in multiple instances of text-prolonging silence, the menial tasks characters perform repeatedly (also in silence), the scenes that take place offstage with muffled conversations the audience can’t understand, the oblique dialogue that continually circles around points without landing on them and the information contained in the script that’s never revealed to the audience.
There are a couple of new ones in John, very handsomely mounted by her steady collaborator, director Sam Gold. A novel approach to opening and closing the curtain helps define a character. A false ending to one of the acts is less effective.
Dale even described himself in terms that might fit me (if I’d had as much experience with Baker’s work as he seems to have had):
a playgoer who admires her experimentation, finds her initial ideas interesting, but is consistently disappointed and disinterested while sitting through her lengthy productions. As with The Flick (and, to a lesser extent, Circle Mirror Transformation) her desire to replace the elevated realism of theatre with naturally-paced, indirect dialogue can have an alienating effect that diminishes the impact of her storytelling.
While the BWW reviewer lauded the performances (with special emphasis on Engel, of course) and Lien’s kitschy set, he comes down in the end to say, “One would think that the odd conversations and curious events that pop up throughout the evening would be building to something, but the dangling clues don’t add up and the open-ended questions go unresolved.” Wondering if “the title is another one of Baker's dangling clues,” Dale added, “John can refer to a few things, none of which are significant enough to warrant naming the play for it.”