“It can be very dangerous.”
The admonition comes early in John, from Mertis “Kitty” Graven, the sweet but strange 70-ish proprietress of a kitschy bed and breakfast. Later, when she describes a Sailor’s Duff she has prepared, she says, “You eat the duff, and then ten minutes later you have thud.” Ostensibly, Mertis is joking with a young couple about the sweet treats she leaves out for guests. But somehow we know to take her seriously. Writing in her journal, she describes a colorful sunset that “leads us inexorably down an ever-darkening path from the gloaming into night.”
When I saw John last season in New York, I was transfixed by the sublime, disquieting oddness of Annie Baker’s play. (Click here to see my review of that production.) At the Arden, it remains a wonderful piece, and often enjoyable. But I’m more aware of how elliptical and difficult it is to get the tone just right. In the first act especially, the lines themselves mostly sound innocuous; it’s the unspoken subtext where the piece really lives.
Here, it doesn’t always hit the right notes. Nancy Boykin, a lovely, gracious actress, is too sensibly grounded for the mystical Mertis. Director Matt Decker and his cast observe Baker’s prescribed pauses, but they don’t register with the eerie sense of suspended time. With Elias (Kevin Meehan) and Jennifer (Jing Xu), the young couple whose pre-Christmas romantic weekend getaway is the catalytic event in John, we need to be more aware that behind effortful attempts at good cheer, their relationship is moments away from violently imploding.
Without that darkness, John initially might be a comedy about a vacation from hell. In fairness, it is that, at least in some ways (this bed and breakfast isn’t located in Gettysburg for nothing). But Baker is after something bigger and more metaphysical. Forced to offer an analysis, I’d venture that John’s unfunny but profound message is that every life is a kind of ghost story—haunted, inexplicable, an unknown path without a clear or logical outcome. I’d also say that for all its revelatory brilliance, this isn’t an easy play. Baker is a great writer, but not a straightforward one. Audiences should expect to meet John halfway (and not everyone will succumb).
Well, make that a third of the way. The play is less opaque (though no less strange) in the second and third acts. Decker’s handsome production also finds additional depth and texture. We also get to meet Genevieve, played here by Carla Belver in a treasurable performance that most fully captures Baker’s tone.
So, it’s a mixed bag, but I still strongly recommend John to anyone interested in the current world of serious theater. (Make that any adult—despite the presence of many dolls on stage, this is not a play for kids.) Still, in the Arden’s production should be more like Mertis’s Duff—the things that go bump in the night need a bigger thud.
John runs through February 26. For more information, visit the Arden Theatre website.