‘John’ at Signature Theatre in New York City

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There are many plays that are known for their sparkling dialogue, others for their rapid fire words that require actors who can deliver them in machine gun mannerNow we have the prolific  and talented Annie Baker who waltzed off with the Pulitzer Prize last year for her play The Flick, which enjoyed a run off Broadway and is now having another in an equally successful return engagement. Ms. Baker and her Roundabout resident director Sam Gold have something quite different in mind. Clearly they  have an aversion to what they must feel is “entertainment dialogue”, polished and razor sharp, which makes for easy listening and instant reward from audience laughter. For in her most recent works (I’m not familiar with her earlier plays) she and he have clearly steered their actors to a new form of theatre, one that stretches time, makes no attempt to involve its audience. Ms. Baker is not much interested in story either, so though The Flick and John each take over three hours to unfold, neither has much of a plot; nothing much happens, and it takes an hour for each of three acts to amble along. Many of my colleagues find her approach fascinating, as witness her mostly rave reviews for The Flick and its ultimate Pulitzer.

Hong Chau and Christopher Abbott in Annie Baker's "John" at the Signature Theatre. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Hong Chau and Christopher Abbott in Annie Baker’s “John” at the Signature Theatre. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

My interest in the four characters in John, not very intense even at the start, slipped and slid through the long first act. In that act we met with the manager of a bed and breakfast inn in Gettysburg, PA., a lady named Mertis Graven (but she likes to be called “Kitty”), and as she is played by the delightful Georgia Engel, she is likable indeed.

Her first (and only) guests are a young couple; he Jewish, she Asian and both are well cast. “Elias Schreiber-Hoffman” is played by Christopher Abbott and his fair lady, “Jenny Chung” is Hong Chau, so though the writing is very much in the voice of its author, her director and she have gone for traditional casting, for nothing else about this production is traditional, except its set.  Designer Mimi Lien has created the lobby and living room of a cozy and somewhat spooky bed and breakfast in Gettysburg,  which is endowed with paraphernalia up and down the staircase to support a very tall and fully decorated Christmas tree. The odd curios that fill the many shelves, nooks and crannies all contributes to a feeling of obsessive collection. The set tells us much about the inn’s current resident, and it has great character.

Completing the ensemble of four is the always welcome Lois Smith, who plays the best friend of the innkeeper. She is somewhat infirm, and blind, but she has an offbeat mind and brings a much needed energy to the proceedings. When she announces that at one point in her middle years she went blind, she makes it sound as though that was her choice, for she was fed up with arrival of the millennials who had lost their linguistic abilities, and the direction in which they were heading lemming-like in their march to the sea forced her to want to turn off the world.

Unfortunately nothing much happens. The young couple, clearly unsuited to each other in many basic ways, starting with their totally different backgrounds and including their opposite value systems, are on this holiday to do some sightseeing, and to try to further develop their relationship. It’s a little late for them, as they’ve been together for three years, and should have taken a long hard look some time back.  Unfortunately for them, the slightly kookie inn only liberates key repressed feelings,  and I wanted to send a note backstage advising them to move on before they do bodily harm to each other.

We do learn something of Mertis’ background, of her unhappy first marriage and her present one with “George” whom we never meet. There is so little story I am not going to give you even a hint of what little does occur, or of who “John” is or what happens to him. But for complete transparency (that new word that is on all contemporary lips) I must tell you that Ms. Baker is revered by the majority of the  press, and the initial response to this play has again been critically very positive. I don’t think it’s a good sign to note many walkouts during the first intermission, and even more during the second, though Ms Baker has become a name based on last year’s Pulitzer, and the matinee I attended began with a full house.

Georgia Engel (Mertis, Katherine Graven), Christopher Abbott (Elias Schreiber-Hoffman), and Lois Smith (Genevieve Marduk). Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Georgia Engel (Mertis, Katherine Graven), Christopher Abbott (Elias Schreiber-Hoffman), and Lois Smith (Genevieve Marduk). Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Georgia Engel, remembered by many for her long run on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, makes good use of her sweet personality to lend just the right amount of innocence and ditziness to her character; she would be a perfect “Abby Brewster” in a revival of Arsenic and Old Lace. Lois Smith brings fire and ice to her best friend the blind Genevieve, and though it’s a small role, she contributes mightily with her characterization.

The younger players are fine, though I wish Ms. Chau would pay a little more attention to her projection. She is an honest actress but the wide Signature Theatre swallows a good deal of her dialogue, and as she figures prominently in what little plot there is, many of the playwright’s words are lost.

I sat next to a patron who thought the whole thing was mesmerizing. But though I had respect for the attempt, I found the play failed to communicate with me, was self-indulgent in its extended length without a storyline to justify it, and any number of odd directorial touches,  (a Christmas tree with eccentric lighting, a radio that had a mind of its own, an unexplained unanswered doorbell, even the use of Ms. Engel as a stagehand).

I felt very much the same way about The Flick last season and now that  has the Pulitzer Prize, so all I can say is, once again, there are different strokes for different folks. I felt I was being punished for ever having enjoyed a corking good thriller, a heartwarming a comedy, a witty and melodic musical, or even a richly textured drama filled with surprises and complicated characters who fascinate even though their journey may be long and ultimately tragic.

Running Time: 3 hours and 30 minutes, including 2 intermissions.

John plays through September 6, 2015 at Signature Theatre – 480 W. 42nd Street, in New York City. For tickets, call (212) 244-7529, visit the box office, or purchase them online

RATING: TWO-AND-A-HALF-STARS.gif

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Richard Seff
RICHARD SEFF has been working in theatre since he made his acting debut in support of Claude Rains in the prize winning DARKNESS AT NOON, and he agreed to tour the next season in support of Edward G. Robinson, which took him across the nation and back for nine months. When it was over and he was immediately offered another national tour with THE SHRIKE with Van Heflin, he decided to explore other areas, and he spent the next 22 years representing artists in the theatre as an agent, where he worked at Liebling-Wood, MCA, eventually a partnership of his own called Hesseltine-Bookman and Seff, where he discovered and developed young talents like Chita Rivera, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Ron Field, Linda Lavin, Nancy Dussault and many others. He ultimately sold his interest to ICM. When he completed his contractual obligation to that international agency, he returned to his first love, acting and writing for the theatre. In that phase of his long and varied life, he wrote a comedy (PARIS IS OUT!) which brightened the 1970 season on Broadway for 107 performances. He became a successful supporting player in film, tv and onstage, and ultimately wrote a book about his journey, SUPPORTING PLAYER: MY LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGE, still popular with older theatre lovers and youngsters who may not yet know exactly where they will most sensibly and profitably fit into the world of show business. The book chronicles a life of joyous work working in a favored profession in many areas, including leading roles in the regional theatres in his work in Lanford Wilson's ANGELS FALL. His last stage role was in THE COUNTESS in which he played Mr. Ruskin for 9 months off Broadway. Five seasons ago Joel Markowitz suggested he join him at DCTheatreScene. His accurate and readable reviews of the New York Scene led, when the time was right, for his joining DCMetroTheaterArts to continue bringing news of the Big Apple's productions just to keep you posted. He is delighted to be able to join DCMTA and work with Joel and hopes that you like what he has to say.