Tuesday, March 14, 2017

ACT's 'John' Is A Weird, Delicious Treat

This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

Annie Baker's latest play John, currently running at ACT's Strand Theatre, is a story about truth, lies, madness, God, ghosts, and Vienna Fingers, although not necessarily in that order.

John is set in a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, run by Mertis Katherine Graven (Georgia Engel), who prefers to go by "Kitty" though no one else actually calls her that. It's the weekend after Thanksgiving, and Mertis's only guests are a twentysomething couple, Jenny (Stacey Yen), and Elias (Joe Paulik), who are on their way back to Brooklyn after visiting Jenny's family in Ohio.

We learn when he was growing up, Elias was a Civil War buff, despite a childhood spent in California in an Esalen-esque retreat run by his hippie parents. Jenny, who does not share Eli's fascination with Gettysburg, has nonetheless agreed to the stopover, mainly in the hopes it will relieve some of the tension that is currently filling their relationship; they're having "issues."

But once menstrual cramps overwhelm Jenny, she opts to stay behind at the B&B, and finds herself sharing some surprising moments with Mertis and Mertis's equally surprising friend Genevieve (a perfectly deadpan Ann McDonough), an elderly woman who has lost both her sight and her mind.

Technically, there are only five characters in John, though the amazingly detailed set by Marsha Ginsberg is almost a character itself. Every inch is filled with tchotchkes and dolls; a large Christmas tree, complete with a miniature, fully lit town at its base, stands in one corner, with lights that have a tendency to flicker on and off, as if commenting on the action. Another corner is home to "Paris," which is what Mertis calls the tiny dining area, each table decorated with lit-up Eiffel towers. Characters often disappear into the set's second story and a hallway's darkened entryway, their conversations becoming muted, just as they would in an actual bed and breakfast.

The decor's dolls are particularly unsettling to Jenny, who had a complicated relationship with dolls as a child, and with one in particular, an American Girl dolled named Samantha. Of course, Mertis has the same doll, and it sits on the wall, reminding Jenny how much it freaked her out as a kid, and how she was convinced Samantha would stare at her in anger, anger about having to be a doll...

But Samantha the doll isn't the only spooky thing about John. The play is filled with a constant and foreboding sense of weirdness. The blind Genevieve is convinced she can hear the house emitting noises no one else can hear; Mertis tells a story of the house's use as a hospital during the Civil War; and a player piano has a life all its own.

So while much of the play's plot is based in realism, specifically the, at times, painfully mundane story of a twentysomething couple's relationship issues, almost everything else feels slightly supernatural, or at least, unreal.

Mertis opens and closes each act by opening and closing the stage's curtains. She also turns the hands on a grandfather clock, and at first this, paired with some beautiful lighting changes from lighting designer Robert Hand, comes off as just a clever bit of stage direction to help illustrate the passage of time. But when she does it in full view of another character, we begin to question Mertis's mere mortal status.

Annie Baker wrote the role of Mertis specifically for Georgia Engel, and it is the perfect fit. Engel is probably best known for her role as Georgette in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, another role that used her almost ethereal speaking voice in a surprising way: she was supposed to sound dumb, but would often prove herself to be the smartest person in the room.

Mertis similarly comes off as slightly simple. Happy to have company; gullibly partaking in a weight loss scheme that involves hormonal injections; always ready with the perfect cup of tea and a plate of Vienna Fingers when you need them.

But as the play progresses she surprises her guests, and the audience. She reads Jenny a passage from her journal, a daily description of that day's sunset which includes descriptions that are almost gory, ("Phosphorescent oranges, grotesque reds, and blasphemous purples slashed open the sky"); when Eli asks if she's religious, she replies that she's a "Neoplatonist;" when Genevieve comes over for her "daily reading," Mertis reads a passage from H.P. Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu.

Ultimately, all of the characters have moments that come as a shock. (Genevieve's comes after the curtain closes on Act II, so stick in your seats.) But at over three hours long, with two intermissions, John can be a challenging play for some. Annie Baker loves silences as much as she does dialogue, and the play is filled with them. But I found myself loving those silences. They allowed me to really look at that incredible set, and gave me the space to think about what the characters were saying, and not allowing themselves to say. John is a play to be savored.

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