|The Philadelphia premiere of Annie Baker's play, John
posted by Ralph Malachowski on Jan 26, 2017 10:30am | comments
The Arden Theatre Company of Philadelphia presents John, a play by Annie Baker, at their Arcadia Stage until February 26. Annie Baker is a young playwright who has amassed an enviable collection of awards: The Pulitzer Prize, Obie, Lucille Lortel, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Time Magazine ranked John as one of its Top Ten Plays of 2015.
Is John a wonderful play? According to this production’s celebrated director Matthew Decker (himself winner of prestigious awards), “John is an expertly measured exploration of spirituality, intimacy, solitude and connection, set near the bloody battleground of Gettysburg. It is a fascinating play from a brilliant writer that I look forward to interpreting with this excellent team of actors and designers.”
The team of actors and designers include many award-winners and accomplished theatre veterans: Nancy Boykin as Mertis (“call me Kitty”), the proprietor of the bed and breakfast; Jing Xu as Jenny; Kevin Meehan as Elias (both Jenny and Elias are the young couple, the only guests at the bed and breakfast); Carla Belver as Genevieve, a blind friend of Mertis. Tim Mackabee, above all the rest of the design team, created a spectacular set. We’ve all been in shops in New Hope, Lambertville, and elsewhere which teemed with things and memories. This living room – the one set throughout – had such detail that it never tired the viewer. Brilliant work, Mr. Mackabee.
After experiencing the play, I have a slightly different view of John. Eccentricity is celebrated in John. The odd, secret obsessions and multiple strange thoughts and memories of the two young characters, their real and imaginary fears and embarrassments are laboriously stated, examined in excruciating detail, and commented upon. Frequently, the character listening merely stared. Many in the audience laughed. These childhood peccadilloes, irrational fears, and embarrassments are still very real to these two young characters. We do at first feel sympathy for them, but their childishness, sniping, nagging, and whining get on our nerves. Later in the play, we discover they’ve been together for three years. Incredible they’ve tolerated each other for so long, since their immaturity soon grates upon the listener. We also learn they have come to this Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, bed and breakfast in order to reconcile their recent near-break-up. An unwise choice even under the best of circumstances, with their nerves already on edge, exacerbated by Jenny’s debilitating menstrual cramps, and Elias’ crippling headaches due to withdrawal from Cymbalta. Adding to the physical extremities of their lives are their undeniable questions which they ask each other: Do you love me? Do you hate me? Do I disgust you? Are you lying to me?
To the playwright’s credit, there are several things to praise. There is an Asian-Jewish love interest, a blind character, specific illnesses and medications are named, placing the story in the present, albeit a present of privileged, young, middle-class urbanites. How three different women find mutual respect. Perhaps most tellingly, the ever present cell phone and everyone’s reliance (except, perhaps, for blind Genevieve) upon constant stimulation.
Playwright Annie Baker has clearly studied Albee, Pirandello, Ionesco, Beckett, Christie, and, especially, M. Knight Shyamalan. She has created a steamy cassoulet with John. Like a rich, slow-cooked stew, John contains many subplots, and calls upon many different elements of storytelling. In no particular order, we have Jenny asking for scary stories, ominous doll stories, Gettysburg graveyards (and the fact the B and B was a military hospital during the Civil War where amputated limbs blocked light coming in through the windows), mentions of ghosts and supernatural watchers. Mertis and her strange occupations: a book written in what Elias believes is witchcraft language; Mertis has a husband … is he alive or a mummy? When she pushes the hands of the grandfather clock to indicate passage of time, is she controlling time? Is she a Prospero controlling this story? Christmas trees light and go off by themselves. Pianos start playing. Much is made about the mysterious rooms upstairs. In short, scary material is presented, yet no plot ever resolves. Much like Elias’ scary stories, they begin, but never end. Finally, Mertis’ friend Genevieve makes the Delphic Oracle seem lucid with her disconnected ravings and quasi-religious hogwash.
John is presented in three, 45-minute acts separated by two intermissions. With each act, the audience sincerely wished for some plot, any one of the dozens of suggested plots, to be resolved. At play’s end, one was – sort of, kind of.
Remaining shows in the Arden’s 2016/2017 season will be: A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Light Princess; and Gypsy. For more information about John, and to purchase tickets, visit www.ardentheatre.org .
[Photo: (Left to Right) Carla Belver, Kevin Meehan and Nancy Boykin in JOHN. www.ardentheatre.org. Photo by Mark Garvin.]