A couple visits a dark, possibly haunted bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pa. in “John,” an exquisitely acted puzzle of a play that features some familiar TV faces — Georgia Engel (Georgette in The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and Christopher Abbott (Charlie, Allison Williams’ boyfriend, in HBO’s Girls.) But “John” also marks the sixth collaboration between playwright Annie Baker and director Sam Gold, and that’s the source of its star power for serious theatergoers. Their new play, which serves as opener for the Signature’s 25th season, shares some of the characteristics of Baker and Gold’s previous work together, beginning with “Circle Mirror Transformation” in 2009 and including last year’s Pulitzer-winning “The Flick.” An accumulation of seemingly random scenes — deceptively casual, slyly amusing, leisurely paced — yields precisely observed moments of clarity and insight. In an Annie Baker/Sam Gold production, texture trumps text, and vivid, fully credible characters slowly emerge before our eyes.
Unlike her previous work, however, “John” seems to be aiming to be some kind of ghost story, but winds up falling short of any kind of fully realized drama. It comes off instead like an exercise in theatrical pointillism – like George Seurat focusing on the small dots that make up such paintings as his “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” – without as much concern that the dots add up to a clear and satisfying overall picture.
Elias (a first-rate Abbott) arrives late one night at the bed and breakfast with his girlfriend Jenny (Hong Chau, best-known for her role as Linh in HBO’s “Treme.”) They are greeted by Mertis (a wonderful Engel), the proprietor, who prefers to be called Kitty. Everybody is a bit awkward at first (Baker and Gold do awkwardness very well) as Kitty shows the historic house to the couple. Masterfully appointed by set designer Mimi Lien, the house is darkly lit, under-heated and full of…stuff – a grandfather clock, patterned stuffed furniture on overlapping patterned rugs, a fake Tiffany light, shelves covered with trinkets, the massive staircase in the middle of the set lined with old dolls sticking out from the bottom of the banister at every step. Gold takes advantage of the set with some nice touches: Kitty opens the curtain at the beginning of each act and closes them before the two intermissions, as if she is opening drapes at the beginning of the day, and closing them at the end of the day. She turns the hands of the grandfather clock in-between scenes, to indicate the passage of time.
Over the three plus hours of the play, we learn that Elias and Jenny are on the verge of breaking up – there is a terrific early scene at the breakfast table showing their petty squabbling because Jenny thinks Elias eats too loudly and Elias thinks she is passive-aggressively expressing her inner rage at him. Part of our pleasure in the unfolding of their relationship is how we are subtly encouraged to take sides with one of them, and then our allegiance shifts. We also peg Kitty initially as pleasant and helpful and not particularly deep, but then wonder whether something else is going on with her. She asks Elias whether he ever felt “watched” as a child, and whether he thought the Watcher was taking care of him.
Yes, he replies after some hesitation, and yes, and after some elaboration, he says:
“I sound like a religious—I mean, I’m not religious at all. I come from a family of Jewish atheists.” He asks her whether she’s a Christian.
“I’m a Neo-Platonist,” she replies.
It’s a funny line, because it’s so surprising, especially coming out of the mouth of Georgia Engel, whose dim beloved Georgette remains with us on DVDs and in memory. But it also feels like yet another clue (Neo-Platonism, the dictionary tells us, is “a philosophical and religious system mixing Platonic ideas and oriental mysticism.”) Moment after moment, line after line, we are led to suspect a mystical/ghostly dimension to the play. Jenny, for example, is haunted by one of the dolls on the staircase, Samantha, because it is an exact replica of a doll she had as a child, one that always seemed to be watching her, reprimanding her. There are some ominous questions – why do we never see Kitty’s husband George; why is Kitty so concerned with the empty Jackson room upstairs? At its best, all of this creates a vague but intriguing atmosphere of dread. But it doesn’t go anywhere. The lowest point involves the fourth character Genevieve, portrayed by the always-amazing Lois Smith. She is a friend of Kitty’s, blind, and, until recently self-declared as crazy, although it’s not completely clear that she’s fully returned to sanity. In near darkness, Kitty reads a long, long passage to Genevieve from H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Call of Cthulhu.” (One Lovecraft scholar has described this story as one of the author’s “bleakest fictional expressions of man’s insignificant place in the universe.”)
Taken as a series of character studies, and piecing together several other clues, one can extrapolate from “John” that Baker is trying to show how alone each of us is – and how the past that haunts us keeps us from making healthy connections with other people. Too much of the play, however, feels best suited for an assignment in a college literature course. I could explain why I think the play is called “John,” for example, but for my exegesis I would expect a grade.
By Annie Baker; directed by Sam Gold; sets by Mimi Lien; costumes by Ásta Bennie Hostetter; lighting by Mark Barton; sound by Bray Poor; production stage manager, Amanda Michaels
Cast: Christopher Abbott (Elias Schreiber-Hoffman), Hong Chau (Jenny Chung), Georgia Engel (Mertis Katherine Graven) and Lois Smith (Genevieve Marduk).
Running time: 3 hours 15 minutes including two intermissions.
“John” is set to run through September 6