Just before the lights dimmed at a performance of Annie Baker’s play, “John”, at Signature Theatre, the woman next to me turned and murmured, “So what's the gist of this play? It's about a toilet or what?” I’m not sure if she was joking, but her question was funny apart from the bathroom reference. As fans will attest, there’s no “gist” in an Annie Baker play, no brief synopsis that sums it up (any more than one could sum up a Beckett play). In Baker’s work, and this is as true of “John” as any of her other plays, characters learn about each other as subtly and imprecisely as people do in real life. Their entrances are quotidian and unremarkable, thus making the slow reveal of their identities that much more interesting. Such viewing requires patience but the rewards are many.
“John” situates us in a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Floral patterns in differing colors adorn the lobby's wallpaper, armchair, sofa, and carpet. Decorative attempts at charm tumble into kitsch with myriad displays of figurines, stuffed bears, and dolls. A side area with café seating and pictures of the Eiffel Tower is referred to sweetly and pathetically as "Paris" by the hotel's owner, Mertis (an eccentric but ethereal Georgia Engel).
Into this perfectly cluttered set (designed by Mimi Lien) enters a young couple, Elias and Jenny (Christopher Abbott and Hong Chau), visiting the bed and breakfast at a fragile point in their relationship. Elias is passionate about the Civil War and eager to attend the day-long tours of nearby battlefields with hopes that Jenny will overcome her disinterest and join him. We learn quickly that the two are close to splitting up, having barely recovered from a painful episode a few months back. Through conversation in the lobby, café, and bedroom (in partially muffled voices) we hear them discussing and arguing about the elements of their pasts that haunt them and that subvert their treatment of each other.
Ghosts and spirits permeate this play more than Baker’s other work. The bed and breakfast, Mertis tells us, was formerly a Civil War hospital, and the ghosts of its patients seem to linger in the guest rooms. The room reserved for Elias and Jenny - the only overnight visitors at the time - behaves oddly, Mertis says, recommending that they move to a different room. Similarly haunting are two men named John who impact Jenny and Genevieve (Mertis' friend, played commandingly by Lois Smith) but are never seen. And there’s Elias’s childhood, which he’d rather not recall let alone discuss.
The mysterious quality of the play similarly rests on what we can't see: the guest rooms at the top of the staircase, the series of mysterious text messages that Jenny declines to share with Elias. The iPhone6 gets a special nod for sound design with its punctuated "DING" every time Jenny receives a message and attempts to evade it.
In the play’s central relationship, depicted through extraordinary acting and Sam Gold's nearly invisible direction, love has not grown in tandem with understanding. After years together, Elias and Jenny still act in ways that bewilder the other. Contrast that with the feeling of complete recognition that Mertis experienced when meeting her husband George (another character who is invoked but unseen). She identified with him so immediately, “it was like showing me my heart or my liver,” she says. And yet, we’re told that Mertis too had to release a former ghost before she could find happiness. No one in this play is exempt from needing to let go. And Elias and Jenny are not there yet.
photo credit: Matthew Murphy