Review: ‘John’ at Signature Theatre

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An eerie sense of the supernatural combined with an almost ritualistic sense of the minutiae of daily living combine to form the aesthetic ambiance of playwright Annie Baker’s haunting and disarming play John. Now being presented at the much-acclaimed Signature Theatre, Director Joe Calarco and a top-flight ensemble cast of four gifted actors have given the Metro DC region yet another immersive sojourn into Annie Baker territory.

Nancy Robinette, Anna Moon, and Jonathan Feuer in John. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Ms. Baker’s last play, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Flick, was also a distinct success and – as in this challenging play – a basically pessimistic and fatalistic view of life is presented with lengthy pauses for effect, deliberate elongated pacing and a very conversational and familiar style of verbal exchanges. A very dry sense of humor percolates underneath the more supernatural and anecdotal moments of the play.

Baker’s plays are hard to categorize in any fashion; like the verbiage of the prodigious songwriter Joni Mitchell or the playwright Harold Pinter – an air of mystery, duality, multiplicity and a sense of the nebulous nature of time are all floating through the atmosphere. Baker seems to relish questions more than answers and while the characters may exude a bleak attitude (although that attitude may be hard to discern in the central character of Mertis), there exists, concurrently, a fragile tentative hope for human communication and connection amidst the oddities, ambiguities and unsettling stories of this motley crew of characters.

With mesmerizing and enticing scenic design by Paige Hathaway, Director Calarco allows his characters copious amounts of time to explore the space of the stage as they encase themselves in the long pauses and timing that are the hallmarks of Ms. Baker’s writing. The messy business of striving for truth in a fallible world is given a twist, as a sense of the unforeseen and the inanimate flicker (like the literal Christmas tree lights) throughout the play.

Philosophical “food for thought” abounds as the audience is treated to an unrushed yet engaging observation of the essences of four very intriguing characters. Mertis (Nancy Robinette—the most overtly pleasant character in the play) is the proprietress of a very atmospheric Bed and Breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania during the end of November (but the house is already decorated to the nines with Christmas décor courtesy of Designer Hathaway). Her only companions are an unseen husband named George and a blind elderly friend, who likes to lecture the audience, named Genevieve (Ilona Dulaski).   

A young couple who are undergoing relationship problems come to stay for a few days – a somewhat extroverted and opinionated character named Elias (Jonathan Feuer) and the moody, disarming character of Jenny (Anna Moon).

As the play progresses, scary stories, jarring special effects, and witty verbal queries and retorts unspool as one begins to realize this is not a conventional play. Baker’s writing about the subjective experiences past and present of the characters is laid bare as this group of four actors play off each other with reciprocal dramatic aplomb and flair. The actors could not be better.

Nancy Robinette as Mertis delivers a subtle study in how to hold the audience’s attention with a sense of quietude and placidity. Robinette’s immersion in the character reminded me of the acting of the illustrious talent Geraldine Page of Broadway and film fame. Ms. Robinette gave a quietly soothing and enchanting performance. Her daily ritual of turning on the jukebox radio, turning on the Christmas tree lights, and winding the hands on the clock was a master class in precise acting that appeared totally unstudied and spontaneous.

Nancy Robinette, Jonathan Feuer, and Ilona Dulaski in John. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Ilona Dulaski gave a powerfully effective performance as the blind Genevieve. It was a performance of direct no-nonsense authority. Ms. Dulaski’s monologue as the 4th wall dissolved and the house lights came up was audaciously effective as she spoke of scorpions entering her mind and becoming one with all souls. This character is completely enigmatic and Ms. Dulaski delivered the mystique with flair.

Mr. Jonathan Feuer’s Elias was effectively natural and explosive in character and his confrontational scenes with his girlfriend Jenny were particularly compelling. He also moved with physical agility and authority.

Ms. Anna Moon’s portrayal of Jenny was alternately moody, disarming, and appropriately manipulative. Ms. Moon especially shone in her scene with Mertis as they talked of their mutual fascination with inanimate objects, such as the many antique dolls lining the shelves on the walls of the set.

As said earlier, Paige Hathaway’s scenic design was peerless. Rarely have I seen such an entrancing and superbly designed set. Hathaway had a fully furnished visitor’s entrance on stage left leading to a background of numerous antique dolls and figurines, a huge Christmas tree and a Parisian-style café for the boarding house guests to dine in. Comfy looking chairs and a couch were set across the stage replete with small café style lamps and a large central staircase which leads to the unseen guest rooms upstairs.

Sound design by Kenny Neal was vigorously interspersed throughout with special effects including the sound of bells, chimes, clock ticking, cell phone noise, phone and a jukebox radio that was brightly lit and played symphonic music. Strange rustling sounds and odd vocal sounds were intermittent. Lighting design by Andrew Cissna was highly evocative and eye-catching throughout. Several scenes were expertly lit in semi-darkness. Costume design by Debra Kim Sivigny was very appropriate to the tone and mood of the play.

Ms. Baker’s writing is fascinating in that, on the surface, nothing of extreme importance seems to be happening and time seems to be suspended, yet everything and anything is indeed happening during the familiar natural conversation and everyday minutiae that is portrayed in her writing.

As I watched the characters of John trying to connect and avoid objectification, I kept thinking of the vacant stares of the antique dolls. I wondered if the human condition was just another prop to be objectified and fetishized like the antique dolls and figurines on the shelves? Or, am I over-analyzing and is this just the melancholy natural behavior of everyday life?

John is a testament to the conundrum of human existence.

Running Time: Three Hours and 30 minutes, including two 15-minute intermissions.

John plays through April 29, 2018, at The Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, purchase them online.

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David Friscic
David has always had a passionate interest in the arts from acting in professional dinner theatre and community theatre to reviewing film and local theatre in college to making numerous treks to New York City to indulge his interest in live theatre. An enthusiastic interest in writing has shown itself in a BA in English/Education and an MA in English Literature. Taken together, these two interests have culminated in the logical conclusion of writing for an arts blog. David moved up and down the East Coast due to his father's job at General Electric and this has helped him to perceive the world in a very open way. After his schooling, David taught in Catholic school systems for awhile and, then, spent three years in the seminary with two years at Catholic University studying Theology and one year in a practicuum working at a church in New York State. David currently works at the National Science Foundation as a Technical Information Specialist for the Office of Polar Programs and has had the great opportunity to go to Antarctica twice and Greenland once in support of the research community. He enjoys living in Bethesda and has taken courses at the Writer's Center. David enjoys swimming, traveling, reading, and working on committees at his condo. His major interest, however, is the arts and all it encompasses---from symphony, to film, to museum treks to live theatre. He counts having lunch with Lillian Gish and meeting Lily Tomlin, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Liza Minnelli and Sandy Dennis as some of the more exciting encounters of his life.