The Theatre Communications Group has just published the readers’ edition of Annie Baker’s new play, entitled John. It is a microscopic work of art, so small as to threaten to disappear. It is also the most quietly devastating and beautiful play to be published in recent memory.
John is set in a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The hotel itself attempts to give off a “comforts of home” vibe to its guests, but is so stuffed with kitsch and tchotchkes that it becomes eerie and haunted. Thousands of objects sit and wait (including a terrifying antique doll), possibly to get their revenge, but almost certainly watching your every move. The plot (as it is) concerns a couple by the names of Elias and Jenny who are staying at the bed and breakfast for their vacation and their interactions with Mertis, the owner, and Genevieve, her blind friend.
The plot itself almost goes nowhere, but where Baker’s true gift comes from is her ear for dialogue. Characters are frequently at a loss for words, with pauses being as frequent in her plays as shouting is in other acclaimed modern plays. Even when characters do speak, it is with frequent uncertainty and, perhaps even more honestly, surprisingly sharp cruelty. When characters argue in an Annie Baker play, they do not use their logic, instead calling the other person out for things that they might not have actually done. It is a unique insight into the way that people communicate nowadays, and it is surprisingly powerful to read in print and recognize the humanity in what everyone says, even when it is unfair or cruel.
But Annie Baker has written plays before, all of which contain her unique grasp on human interaction and are, almost without exception, superb. What is it that makes John so unique amongst her body of work? Well the answer is what she has chosen to tackle for the thematic element of this play. With her previous plays, like The Aliens, which tackles modern masculine identity and the purpose of art, and The Flick, which addresses race, class, and mental illness better than most political debates, Annie Baker had always been concerned with daily issues. Here, she widens her scope considerably and tackles the nature of God and the purpose of human existence better than a hundred pages of philosophy ever could. No, seriously.
What makes this dizzying feat even more impressive is that she wraps it all a beautifully human and utterly believable story with dialogue that looks like this:
GENEVIEVE: (holding up a finger) Did you hear that?
They all sit, listening. Then:
MERTIS: (quietly) Hear what, Genevieve?
GENEVIEVE: It’s that rustling sound again
They all try to listen
GENEVIEVE: A Rustling or a whispering.
No one heard it?
Jenny shakes her head no
MERTIS: We can’t here it
GENEVIEVE: …And there.
JENNY: I don’t hear anything
If you’re wondering how on earth this is possible, it’s because Annie Baker finds a way to address the issues without finding a need to close the books on them at all. She has a unique perspective on most topics that is frequently so startlingly clear once you hear it that you wonder why you didn’t say it yourself (and the suggestions here are at once terrifying and oddly comforting), but she also frequently leaves the next part of the conversation to you. The issues at hand in John are far too towering for any human to arrive at a conclusion, and are unanswerable by nature. Baker doesn’t solve the mystery, but shapes it in a way so that it becomes finite, inviting you to consider the same questions that she clearly is. It is exhilarating and unbelievably powerful to experience, even in print.
Now, the questions in John are particularly heady, and require quite a bit of digestion, so the thematic content may not be for everybody. However, even without a full grasp of the work, the underlying play is beautifully realized and powerfully told. It is an extraordinary work of art, one that will, in time, hopefully be recognized as one of the greatest plays of the century.