Somehow this review got left in my drafts...so I'm reviving it now...with some spoilers.
Annie Baker peels back the layers of a relationship in crisis in her new play, John. With an eerie tone, discussions of the supernatural and the religious, John may feel like the abruptly interrupted ghost story the character Elias tells during the play. But Baker's real focus is the tension in that disruption. Along with the keen eye of director Sam Gold, Baker and Gold craft an entire world from the incomplete stories told, the dangling sentences uttered, and all the things in relationships left unspoken but that fill the space of our minds. This is not a ghost story in the traditional sense—the hauntings are by words and ways in which people and objects change you forever.
Elias (Christopher Abbott) and Jenny (Hong Chau) may like spooky stories but their endeavor to chase the ghosts of Gettysburg is just a distraction from the real difficulties they face with each other. They have stopped into a bed and breakfast for a couple of days on a drive from Columbus, Ohio back to NYC. Mertis (Georgia Engel) is their host--a cheery, sugar-free woman intent on making sure they have a good time. But Mertis carries with her a quiet sadness and a deep empathy for this couple.
Mertis is the one who presents this story to us by peeling back the curtain on the stage or covering it back up again with each scene change. Mertis speaks of mystical watchers, launches into Latin, and writes florid prose about sunsets in her journal. She has a husband we never see. Her best friend Genevieve (Lois Smith), an older blind woman dependent on her nephew, comes over to eat Vienna fingers and tells stories of her troubled mind. Personal philosophies of love, life, and what is bigger than we are circle all these characters as well as the mysteries of this house, this world, and the secrets of our own hearts.
But at it's core John focuses on Elias and Jenny fighting to keep their relationship alive when perhaps what they had has already departed--we may be watching the ghost of their relationship--echoes of what once was played out by muscle memory.
We watch Jenny trying to be accommodating even when she's in agony with menstrual cramps. Elias is short-tempered, over-sensitive, and a little over-bearing. Jenny tells lies. Elias can’t do anything but tell the truth, whether it’s pleasant or not. But as more information trickles out about each of them, their behavior gets a slightly different gloss. The more you know someone the harder it is to condemn them outright. Our understanding and allegiances shift ever so slightly. And our assumptions continue to be torpedoed.
Baker spends a lot of time with these characters looking at the objects they embed with power. From childhood toys to memories, these things, ideas, and voices in our minds can have the same power over us as people. We let them get in our heads. We bend ourselves toward them. We watch bits of ourselves slip away. And sometimes in a relationship to lose a bit of yourself to become a couple is a positive. In this play the examples of the voices taking hold in people’s minds (Genevieve’s controlling ex-husband, Jenny’s American Girl Doll Samantha) are negative and destructive. But sometimes you can't know until you are inside it whether losing yourself to someone else is a positive or a negative.
The play reaches a peak on this theme with Genevieve’s curtain breaking speech (the one time Mertis is not in control and Genevieve pops out from the curtain in the middle of one of the intermissions). Genevieve takes a moment of our time to explain that she's reached an age where she stopped hearing the voices of others in her head and paid no mind to what others thought of her. This release from those voices becomes a liberation and the speech is unnerving in it's precision and cutting honesty. It left me weeping.
Mimi Lien's hyper-realistic set of a B&B overrun with teddy bears and Christmas tat was far too much like my own mother's living-room for my liking (I mean it was really accurate). But shows a keen eye for decorative storytelling and adds another layer to the mystery of Mertis. It is the external expression of a kitschy B&B but nothing about Mertis quite fits this environment. Sound design by Bray Poor makes great use of the "upstairs" off-stage space where noises, arguments, and conversations are muffled and communicated to us with intentional obfuscation. The house in the play becomes another character who makes no one comfortable--the rooms are too cold, the spirits within are unsettled, and even with the external trappings of a home it is not one.
If the secondary goal of scary movies is to end up clutching the person next to you to feel safe, here Baker's creepy and atmospheric John makes the arms of the person you are with the last place you will feel true comfort. John shows that we need not fear the mystical when the familiar can do the most harm.