A Bullet Review
August 1, 2015
A play by Annie Baker
Signature Theatre 42d Street NYC
There are people who are very comfortable with interpersonal silence and others like moi who need to keep yapping to fill it in. In Annie Baker’s new play “John” interpersonal stage silence is an important part of her playwright’s tool box in this exploration of the dark psychic baggage of seemingly everyday folks.
The Signature Theatre, where the play is in previews, won’t be putting asses in seats with this one, and there were a lot less asses in those seats at the end of this 3 hour and 15 minute play but its filled with sharp humor, compelling characters , and strong performances.
Ms. Baker, who won a Pulitzer in 2014 for “Flick”, digs into the psychic anguish of every day lives while challenging traditional notions of staging. In Flick she peeled back the layers of desperate underpaid young people working in a small town movie theatre with a stage set consisting of rows of a run down movie seats facing the audience.
In John, a young couple with a relationship, hanging by a thread, spend a weekend in a dowdy tchotchke smothered Gettysburg PA bed and breakfast. In the early minutes, the audience watches the couple climb the stairs to their room. We are left staring at the empty set for a few beats and then become awkward eavesdroppers straining to hear the muffled voices of the couple arguing in their room.
Here comes some good news. Georgia Engel who plays Mertis, the B&B owner combines the same sweetness and deer in headlights, small town dopiness, that cracked up those of old enough to remember her as Ted Baxter’s girlfriend Georgette on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Her impeccable timing and larger than life facial expressiveness squeezes great things out of silent spaces as we get larger and larger glimpses of the haunted dark side of her back story.
Then there is the always wonderful treat of watching veteran stage and screen actor Lois Smith play the role of Mertis's blind best friend Genevieve. Genevieve speaks truth from darkness about life and love. In another unexpected moment which again challenges theatrical staging expectations Ms. Smith . . . . Its not major, but it is unique enough not to spoil. If I were a real critic I would understand this tapping of the blind sage as a classic character of Greek theatre but, Im not and I don't.
Christopher Abbott and Hong Chau give solid but unexciting performances. The plot’s descent into darkness was ultimately engaging but unrelenting while leaving too many dangling unexplained threads of spookiness. It did meet my first criteria of theatre on a weeknight - I stayed awake.
But Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, wanted to press another point.
With Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, sitting a few feet away, Mr. Reid complained that Senate Republicans were spitefully blocking the confirmation of dozens of Mr. Obama’s nominees to serve as ambassadors. He expected that the president would back him up and urge Mr. McConnell to relent.
Mr. Obama quickly dismissed the matter.
“You and Mitch work it out,” Mr. Obama said coolly, cutting off any discussion.
Mr. Reid seethed quietly for the rest of the meeting, according to four separate accounts provided by people who spoke with him about it. After his return to the Capitol that afternoon, Mr. Reid told other senators and his staff members that he was astonished by how disengaged the president seemed. After all, these were Mr. Obama’s own ambassadors who were being blocked by Mr. McConnell, and Secretary of State John Kerry had been arguing for months that getting them installed was an urgent necessity for the administration.