Taking in Annie Baker’s John at Signature Theatre gives me the rare opportunity to use a word I have always wanted to, but haven’t before–the word “anhedonia.”
Yes, Baker’s play John has a full share of characters that display anhedonia. Several seem freakishly incapable of finding pleasure in a relationship; let alone receiving or giving long-term love to another human being. Pain, humiliation, depression or melancholy are what they know. They are frightened by the prospects of true, long-lasting love and all that can mean. Lies and mistrust are easier; if not safer. You can always leave, and not look back, so several characters think.
Directed with the sure hands of Joe Calarco, (he directed Baker’s The Flick at Signature a few years back) John has a slowed-down sense of time. Make that a way slowed down sense of time, like in a car crash when time almost stands still. Calarco’s direction captures the claustrophobic nature that some real-life relationships can be–not only for those living it, but those observing it.
Together Baker’s script and Calarco’s direction give the Signature audience a close-at-hand vision of several characters who consider themselves unworthy of love and someone’s care. There is also a quirky character with lovely comic aspects. But don’t despair, there is one solid character who tries to save the day with her compassion and heapings of grace. We all should be so lucky to have her in our own lives.
The characters in John include one young couple, Jenny (Anna Moon) and Elias (Jonathan Feuer) trying to reconnect by getting away from their Brooklyn neighbor for a few days by visiting a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, PA. Are cultural differences affecting the bickering young couple? (Baker casts Jenny as an Asian-American and Elias as a Jewish-American). Are childhood traumas rearing up to have them so often miserable with each other? Why must there be some form of dynamite explode between them at regular intervals to get them excited, wet or hard? That could get boring as a theatrical device in the wrong hands. Once excited, they never seem capable of completing the wonderful pleasures of kisses, hugs and connected love-making. A sort of foreplay often starts with the telling of a scary story, but then something always ruins it, like for instance the chirps of incoming text messages that must be responded to, rather than muting the phone.
Ilona Dulaski is a marvel portraying a mature, blind woman named Genevieve who has her share of terrible life stories including a breakdown and its aftermath in her efforts to leave a very bad marriage (to an abusive man named John). She is also the source of comic relief in the production.
And then there is the absolute joy of once again seeing Nancy Robinette on a DC stage. In her character of Mertis, the owner of the B&B, she is kind and full of amazing decency. At first, she too seems a caricature with her Vienna finger cookies, and an amazing collection of dolls and memorabilia along with general kitsch and grim Civil War stories. But, damn, she is the one trying to bring caring to all the wounded folk in her midst. She is the one trying to take care of wounded birds so that they can take flight once again.
In this column, let me highlight something that being the father of a once young daughter taught me; the value of dolls, playing with dolls, how dolls can be romanticized, the personalities of each doll that my daughter gave to them. Scenic designer Paige Hathaway has made impeccable choices to frame John–including dozens upon dozens of dolls; American Girl Dolls, Madame Alexander Dolls and perhaps some Ginny Dolls too. Each doll had its own distinct personality. The detailed set and the dolls and the kitsch refreshed me when the show might get a bit long as it moved forward.
Be warned–John is no one-act quickie. John is for those who want to truly observe and listen carefully. For those who have patience with a play’s development of characters. For those with patience with the concept of time spent at the theater.
Now, for one last note. As I drove home from Signature with my wife Willa, we began to chat about the final scene. It was a key scene with the chirps of an incoming message on a mobile phone. Only one word is spoken in the scene: the name John (no, not the abusive ex-husband). We differed with our takeaways about that scene. It was a wonderful conversation–an example of the pleasure of disagreeing with someone you love. Jenny and Elias should have been in the car with us.
Running Time: Three hours and 30 minutes, with two intermissions.