What can great theatre, the very best theatre, do to an audience? That answer tends to change depending on the show. We can leave the theatre crying our eyes out, reeling from having our perspectives of the world totally shifted, or nursing our aching stomachs from laughing so hard for so long. But perhaps my own favorite kinds of theatre are the plays that seek to frighten an audience out of their wits. Really effective horror plays like The Pillowman or Bug can make it difficult to sleep at night, but the kind of horror that works even better is designed to scare an audience in a cosmological sense. The 21st century has brought with it a smattering of plays that seek to do this and do so very well, namely plays like The Humans, Hand to God, or Marjorie Prime—each one terrifying; each one a masterpiece. Perhaps rising above all others in this respect is Annie Baker’s staggering masterwork John, her 2015 follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick, which is currently being produced in San Francisco through April 23rd by the American Conservatory Theatre.
John takes place in a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, run by Mertis, a mousy elderly woman. The hotel itself is grotesquely kitschy, with paisley carpeting, tchotchkes galore, and hundreds upon hundreds of old-fashioned dolls that see all with their cold, unblinking eyes. The main storyline concerns Elias and Jenny, a mid-30s couple from Brooklyn who have been dating for just over three years, driving back from Columbus, Ohio, where they spent thanksgiving with Jenny’s family, staying in Gettysburg for a few days due to Elias’s longtime fascination with the Civil War. The couple were close to breaking up a few weeks before the play begins and their relationship is still very much on the rocks. Also in the mix is Genevieve, Mertis’s blind friend who supposedly went crazy right after her husband died.
If one were to write out everything that happened within John, they would find that it’s slim on the plot side. Indeed, most of the action is devoted to the four characters discussing, arguing, and fighting about not much in particular, and on top of that, at least a third of John is told in complete and utter silence, with actions like texting or writing in a journal given as much stage time as the supposedly climactic moments of the evening. It also happens to be three full hours long and told in three acts. All this is to say that John is an uncompromising piece of theatre, and as such, not all are going to be able to tune in to its frequency and may find themselves bored or frustrated by what is happening onstage. But those who adjust to Baker’s stylings will find themselves enraptured like nothing else before and find that the three hours feel like both a true eternity and simply no time at all. Right after the final curtain call, I would have willingly watched the play two, or three more times right then and there, and I had already read the play twice and seen it once before.
Annie Baker allows the minuscule to become massive, the silent to become cacophonous, the invisible to become omnipresent. It is through this stylistic lens that she choses to tackle both a staggeringly accurate portrayal of interpersonal relationships and an impossibly frightening dissection of the transcendental questions that follow us all around everywhere we go, even if we don’t realize it. Elias and Jenny are mostly there to extrapolate on this first point, though all four characters are dragged into both interpersonal and cosmological conflicts, and the results are acutely painful and devastatingly true to life. Elias and Jenny are at that stage of a relationship where everything about the other person that used to charm becomes impossibly irritating, every word spoken the exact wrong thing to be said, every moment away from the other a blessing and a relief, and yet, they find themselves unable to end their relationship, either out of sense of obligation to the other or fear of being alone for the first time in many years.
Merits and Genevieve serve as the play’s philosophical epoch, both initially appearing as stereotypes of elderly women but revealing a seemingly endless amount of layers to their personality. “I’m a tiny bit psychic” says Mertis towards the end of the first act—a line that provokes a laugh from much of the audience who presume her to be quaintly ridiculous. But the second two acts shift the audience’s perceptions of her character from one to be charmed by to one to be reckoned with in such a way that you won’t even notice at what point her oddities stop sending a smile to your face and instead send a chill down your spine. Genevieve, too, starts off as being perceived as tough, salty, and totally out of her mind until it dawns on the viewer that she can see the world far clearer than anyone else in the play or audience.
The transition from charming to alarming by these characters is rather emblematic of the play’s overall journey from comedy to horror. At first, the bed-and-breakfast seems warm and cutesy, slightly odd, but still inviting. By the end of the three hours, you’ll be almost too keenly aware of the thousands of eyes who watch the audience in the form of plastic dolls, and even start to recognize yourself, the audience member, as a character within this story. John is a play about watching and being watched, and your presence as the always unseen observer might have you question who sees you as you go about your own life.
It doesn’t hurt that Annie Baker has a perspective on the transcendental that feels both unique and genuinely held. The Watcher, the God, present within John feels of a piece with the play itself, and Ms. Baker creates a context in which the Watcher has to be accepted. Leaving John is like leaving a friend’s house after a particularly enjoyable evening together, a screening of the scariest film you’ve ever seen, and an unusually profound religious service, all at the same time.
I could go on singing John’s praises for dozens more paragraphs, from the absolutely perfect title of the work (which I shall not reveal the purpose of here in the interest of preventing spoilers) to the oh-so subtle way in which Baker recognizes how people have genuinely different patterns of speech, even picking up on the details of the differences in how we talk to different people, but this is designed to be a review, not a dissertation, so I will say that the production currently running at the American Conservatory Theatre’s Strand venue, a beautifully proportioned, brand-new space right on Market Street, is not perfect, but it has so many elements that work so well together that it is deserving of being seen by all who come across its path.
Annie Baker wrote John specifically for one actress, that being Georgia Engel, who played Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and who originated the role in the play’s inaugural production in 2015. It’s a true gift to audiences that she is currently reprising her role in the American Conservatory Theatre’s production, her honeysuckle voice perfectly matching the text and her ability to portray darkness without ever losing her warm and comforting edge a most impressive slight-of-hand trick. It could (and probably is) my bias towards the play itself, but her performance is the best single piece of acting I’ve ever seen. The other three cast members are not quite as effective, mostly turning in genuinely great performances that stop short of being ideal. Ann McDonough, who plays Genevieve, has a great voice and crack timing, but she lacks the ineffable quality to draw the eyes towards her that the role requires. Stacey Yen as Jenny is marvelous in the second and third acts, specifically when the text requires a strong emotional undercurrent, but her somewhat vacuous performance seems out of balance during the mostly mood-setting and uneventful first act. Joe Paulik gives probably the most technically strong performance, but his stage voice is overly emphatic to the point of losing the hyper-naturism of Baker’s play. These aren’t problems per say, but merely ways in which the production technically has room for improvement. Director Ken Rus Scmoll seems to be as enamored with the play as myself, and it shows in his staging, which is constantly visually interesting and unmistakably of and for the play, even if its pace is sometimes faster than it needs to be.
Thankfully, the physical production is absolutely amazing. Marsha Ginsberg’s set design is beautifully cluttered and endlessly detailed, seemingly messy but perfectly allowing for action to be staged without distraction. The sheer necessity of construction for this play means that the ACT was really the only company in the area that could have given this show the staging it deserves, and for that audiences genuinely have reason to be thankful. Robert Hand’s lighting design is magnificent to the point of seeming impossibility, and Brendan Aanes’s sound design is subtle and exactly right.
There are six modern english language plays that I consider to be absolutely perfect. The other five are: The Glass Menagerie, Our Town, Horton Foote’s 1918, Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, and Annie Baker’s previous play The Flick. But John seems to rise above them all, a work of art that is both impeccable in craft and unending in meaning, and exactly the kind of thing that I want theatre to be. Since I was first introduced to it, John has invaded my life. Everything I see, everything I do, has become an extension of John. If the theatre is my church, John is my gospel.
John plays at the Strand Theatre in San Francisco through April 23. Tickets and information available here.