We start slowly and quietly, with the audience simply taking in the scene. This is an Annie Baker hallmark, and she, with the assistance of her frequent, Tony-winning collaborator, director Sam Gold (The Flick, Fun Home), uses it to good effect. Over the course of three acts, Baker (The Flick, The Aliens) introduces us to four characters, inviting us to ponder forgiveness and the obstacles to healing.
John takes place over the course of a late November weekend at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, PA. The innkeeper, Mertis Katherine Graven (Georgia Engel), is a sweet older woman who has filled her home with tchotchkes and Christmas ornaments of all sorts. She likes to have instrumental music playing in the background, and part of her daily routine includes writing in her journal about the sunset. Mertis always lingers just a little too long with her guests, trying to make conversation and be what she probably thinks is a gracious hostess.
Her guests this weekend are Elias Schreiber-Hoffman (Christopher Abbott) and Jenny Chung (Hong Chau), a couple making the post-Thanksgiving drive from Jenny's parents' home in Columbus, OH, to their home in Brooklyn. Eli and Jenny's relationship is the central one, and they have much to work through.
Though she is spoken of in the first act, we don't meet Mertis's friend, Genevieve Marduk (Lois Smith), until the second act. Genevieve, a blind woman, regales Mertis and Jenny with stories of how her ex-husband invaded her body (spiritually, not physically) and haunted her for years. Genevieve says her ex's name is John. At that moment, the audience collectively let out an, "Oh," as if to say, "Oh, that's the name of the play. I get it now." But not so fast. Jenny responds by saying, "I know someone named John," to which the spunky Genevieve retorts, "Everyone knows someone named John."
And that's the name of the play. "John," the most generic name there is, doesn't refer to a specific person. Rather, Baker deftly uses John as a stand in for something that haunts us. When Genevieve says we all know someone named John, what Baker means is that we all have a "John" haunting us, someone or something that stands as an obstacle to getting on with life.
What Eli and Jenny must figure out is how to heal with their John looming over their relationship. The troubled couple is struggling to understand what to do when the most intimate bond you could have with someone is broken, is betrayed.
Playwright Baker and director Gold, such fantastic artistic partners, pack in details and seemingly little moments that help us truly get to know Mertis, Eli, Jenny and Genevieve. Everything has a purpose, including the dolls and trinkets cluttering Mimi Lien's set.
For instance, Mertis has a Samantha American Girl doll sitting in a chair on a shelf near the staircase. It's the same Samantha doll Jenny had as a girl. Jenny had a complicated relationship with her dolls, imbuing them with human emotions. Jenny always thought Samantha was mad at her. When asked why she never got rid of the doll, Jenny says she couldn't; she'd saved up months and months of babysitting money to buy Samantha.
That pattern reemerges in her relationship with Eli. The couple is on the rocks, and when Eli explains this to Mertis, he says that Jenny always wants to stay. Eli never knows whether to stay in the relationship or end it, but Jenny, having invested in the pair for three years, always wants to stay.
It's moments like that that make Baker's style of storytelling so effective. Some people groan when they hear a play is three hours or more, as this one is. Some people, after having sat through a three hour show, whether it's this one or Hamilton, say that it was too long. I say those people are crazy.
Sure, Baker could have gotten her point across in less time, but John wouldn't be as potent. If you were to take out the small, quiet moments, those times when we are literally watching someone sit in silence, you'd be left with histrionics, knowing only one, volatile side of Eli and Jenny's relationship. Without the character building parts, you wouldn't be invested in their relationship so even if you're only spending 90 minutes with them, you wouldn't care. (And if you took out the outbursts and it was just the understated stillness, you'd become restless.)
We need all three hours and acts to fully understand who these four people are and what's happening, even if there isn't a lot going on. Baker's plays, John included, hearken back to a naturalism we don't often see in theatre. To wit, John features Baker's typical natural dialogue, "um"s, pauses and stammering included. Baker has a knack for writing how people actually talk. (This is in contrast to Sorkinese, for example; Aaron Sorkin has his intelligent characters speak with a constant eloquence that sounds great but doesn't reflect conversations real-life intelligent people would have. His heightened writing is poetry, whereas Baker's naturalistic dialogue is prose.)
The naturalism carries over into the pacing and performances. Georgia Engel (Baker's Uncle Vanya, The Mary Tyler Moore Show) is effective as the sweet and dim Mertis, while Hong Chau (Inherent Vice) does well with burying Jenny's feelings. Lois Smith (After the Revolution) is feisty as Genevieve, and you'll be particularly tickled with her interlude before the second intermission. The lone man, Christopher Abbott (The House of Blue Leaves, Girls), is effortlessly natural as Eli, fully embodying this person, rather than just playing a character.
Though some lights flicker and there is talk of the house being haunted, those are not the kind of spooks that interest Baker. Instead, the haunting in John, those people, things and moments from our past that stunt us in the present, is scarier because it's real and part of our lives. We all have things that haunt us; we all know someone named John.