Annie Baker’s John, now playing at Undermain Theatre, is a must-see, and it’s as simple as that. What’s not simple is the play itself. It opened at New York’s Signature Theatre Company in 2015, and the regional premiere in Dallas is not one to miss.
Baker is a master of long pauses, and she doesn’t skimp on them here. Undermain executive producer Bruce DuBose directs these silences deftly, and the cast lives there both comfortably and appropriately uncomfortably.
John is a departure for Baker in some ways, but the acute sense of place that defines her writing remains intact.
The set is at first hidden by a large red curtain, strung across the stage. As innkeeper Mertis reveals Robert Winn’s set, we are at once treated to the incredibly detailed and perfectly tchotchked world. The action all takes place in a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, bed-and-breakfast. It's divided into sections: the breakfast nook that Mertis calls Paris, the couch and seating area, and the stairs that lead to the inn’s bedrooms, where the audience overhears the arguments of the young visiting couple.
Mertis is startling, beautiful, unsettling. She references a “watcher” throughout, as well as her husband, George, who is never seen. Mertis welcomes her guests, Jenny and Elias, later than she had expected. There is an immediate feeling that something is off. As the days and nights go on, the stories come out.
Jenny and Elias are unhappy together, and the fight picks up almost immediately. Elias, played with deadpan hilarity and bubbling rage by Scott Zenreich, is volatile, upset, angry. He’s also excited about exploring Gettysburg and taking graveyard tours. Jenny (Olivia de Guzman), perfectly beautiful and childish, is less than enthused. Much will be revealed over the course of their stay.
Jenny begs off an auto tour the next day with period cramps and spends an evening with Mertis and her best friend. Genevieve, played by Rhonda Boutté, absolutely steals this show from the second she appears. Stark, hilarious and invigorating, Genevieve pulls no punches.
Genevieve went mad, she tells her companions. Haunted by the spirit of her ex-husband, John, she couldn’t get him out of her thoughts. She woke when he woke her, felt his presence at every moment. It went on for several years until she was done with him, and then he was gone.
To say the stories are haunted is at once true and misleading. There is a definite eerie vibe that one cannot shake. Are the ghosts literal? The Christmas tree and lights that adorn the living area have a mind of their own. The house does too, it seems.
Creepy dolls are lovingly placed throughout (a particular point of distress for Jenny), and a player piano springs to life at inopportune moments. (This is a great time to mention the excellent sound design by Paul Semrad.) A small jukebox that sits atop the piano drives the mood.
So much happens in the silence. DuBose lets the action take its time here, and it serves the story well. Mertis ritualistically lights and extinguishes the lamps and candles throughout the room. Nothing is rushed, but an unsettling urgency permeates.
And then there’s Baker’s trademark sense of place. It is clear she’s done her homework. There’s blood in the soil in Gettysburg, and at one time, there were so many limbs that they blocked the light from the windows. Now Mertis sits in the fading daylight and writes descriptions of the sunsets.
Time has changed much here. In the midst of this history, a brutal divide within the country, Baker shows us the humanity of these women. Are they all a little crazy? Absolutely.
It’s almost impossible to define the ethereal mood of this play. It is disturbing and raw at times. Watching two people tear one another apart in the ways Jenny and Elias do feels both wretched and voyeuristic. Listening to Genevieve’s account of her madness is heartbreaking. Mertis’ distant references to George and her constant questioning if others feel watched, too, are perplexing.
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This play takes its time. Upon its premiere in 2015, it clocked in at more than three hours. Undermain’s 2.5 hours never lose momentum. Baker knows so much happens in silence, over stretches of time that feel undeterminable.
This playwright has spent much time on young, white, American men. We see it here with Elias, but it’s all about the women in John. They commune together over white wine although divided by generation, technology, literal vision.
“I just ... I know someone named John,” Jenny muses over Genevieve’s story of her madness.
“Everyone knows someone named John.” Genevieve replies.