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A CurtainUp Review

Update Just Before John's Final Curtain at the Signature by Elyse Sommer

I don't care whether a play runs the currently preferred 90-minutes or takes its time, as Annie Baker did with Flick and has now done again doing with John. A so-so play can feel endlessly long at even less than 90 minutes. And one running over 3 hours can keep you attentive to everything said — or, as is common with any Baker play, what's wordless.

And yet, by the time I was back in New York to catch up with John, I was nursing a knee injury and a long "sit" like this was physically daunting. Would my knee stiffen up and make sitting through three acts too uncomfortable to be enjoyable. Fortunately, the Pershing Square Signature Theater's seats aren't cramped like so many Broadway houses, the two intermissions provided stand-and-stretch time. . .and most important, John had me so engaged that I was able to ignore that problem knee.

Having seen all of the gifted Baker's plays, it was fascinating to see her break from her trademark hyper-natural style for a gothic flavored story in a tchochke cluttered B&B that was once a Civil War hospital. While Jenny's boyfriend Elias does respond to her "Tell me a scary story" request, Baker takes that request beyond "telling" but lets us see the ghosts actually pile up, pause by pause filled scene. And all with a remarkable amount of humor. While my colleague, Simon Saltzman ended his review by NOT telling us anything about the title character, I don't think it's a spoiler to explain that there are actually two Johns — unseen but hardly unimportant. I would also warn you not to rush out to the lobby between the second and third act if you don't want to miss some not to be missed business by the terrific Lois Smith. While Smith has been a show stopper for ages, this is a belated star turn for Georgia Engel. Not that she's a newcomer to acting. She's worked steadily on TV (notably as the window dresser in the Mary Tyler Moore Show) and in live theater she made a major impact as the librarian in Will Eno's Middletown and as Marina in Ms. Baker's adaptation of Uncle Vanya ).

I spent the time waiting to catch up with John, adding Annie Baker to Curtainup's playwrights album which, given that Baker is a young and very active writer, is sure to have many future updates, as this play is sure to have a life beyond this premiere run. To read the Baker backgrounder go here

posted 9/01/15

John review when it opened by Simon Saltzman

You probably asked for the Jackson (room) because it's the least expensive but I'm going to give you the Chamberlain for the price of the Jackson and I hope you'll forgive me for not giving you ample warning. — Mertis
Georgia Engel,Christopher Abbott, Lois Smith
The new play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Baker is a haunting, intense, surreal, and also demanding drama. It's likely to keep the discussion/argument about Baker's assiduous embrace of time and her empowering of vacant spaces. To some it's a commendable conceit. Others will find "no there there."

Audiences for whom life on the stage is best served in fast forward, are likely to have a hard time with Baker's plays. However, the success of Circle Mirror Transformation and The Flick (currently enjoying an extended run downtown), confirmed Baker as a vital new dramatic voice. Her deliberately confined and delicately controlled writing style is refreshing, and in John contains bold flashes of magic realism with its disregard for the plausible. Her plays are certainly unlike any of her contemporaries. While some might see her the influence of Pinter, her pauses are distinctly Bakeresque and not copycat Pinteresque.

The story of John is partly illusive but also partly exactly what is played out in front of us. Yes, patience is required and the payoff is (curiously) telegraphed and no surprise, though in retrospect that hardly seems important.

A splendid cast under Sam Gold, Baker's director of choice are co-creators of a mood that will have you chortling one minute and sending shivers down your spine the next. Be prepared for a good many strange and unsettling events, all of which take place in Mertis's (Georgia Engle) Bed & Breakfast in the historic Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg where Jenny (Hong Chau) and her boy-friend of three years Elias (Christopher Abbott) have booked a room for the weekend while they visit the Civil War sites.

As the play begins, Mertis will have you wondering why she's been assigned to slowly and cautiously walk the length of the curtain-drawn stage only to be the one to pull it open. This remains her job for all three acts, as is the task of periodically re-setting the hands of a grandfather clock. Is she in charge of time?

In her bedroom slippers, Mertis is no hurry, (and, at least for a while, that's likely to be true for the audience). The view of the beautiful candle-lit interior setting designed by Mimi Lien is in itself worth taking everything in slowly, so is Mark Barton's lighting design which is well beyond atmospheric. It's evening and Christmas and the B & B's decorations are notable for their collection of gnomes, trolls, dolls, angels, a lovely lighted jukebox radio, a menagerie of miniatures fill all the nooks and crannies.

Mertis, who declares "most people just call me Kitty" immediately appears eccentric and probably well on her way to senility — but not enough so to keep her from taking care of her establishment and also of an apparently sickly husband. Though he's never seen he may or may not be somewhere in the house. A regular visitor is her best friend Genevieve who is blind, mystical and possibly clairvoyant or not. Her shoulder length white hair gives her an angelic look. She is played by the wonderful Lois Smith, who also has a task outside of her character: that is telling a five-minute story in front of the curtain after the second intermission. It is a relevant story, and it's purposefully spooky.

Elias and Jenny (Christopher Abbott and Hong Chau) are the only paying guests and their relationship is quickly perceived to be on shaky grounds. He is critical, judgmental, accusatory and harshly insensitive toward Jenny whose every remark ignites a challenge. Yet he says he loves her. She seems to be defensive and cower at his accusations that she lies to him, and also makes fun of his Jewish eating habits. Really. She has secrets. Really. Yet in the midst of their unease they make love.

Both Abbott and Chau are ultra real presences and in a perpetual state of emotional turmoil. They are diametrically out of synch with the ephemeral and dotty behavior of Mertis and Genevieve who live in a universe controlled by the unseen. So what it is that makes Jenny say to Elias: "Tell me a scary story" as they sit alone in the dark. All of whom, however, share a fear of being watched, by God, by ghosts, by forces that can make the lights on the Christmas tree flicker.

Baker's fans will embrace this 3-hour,3 act departure from her Massachussetts settings and total naturalism,. Whether enchanted or exhausted, it's not easy to sum up with a simple "here's what it's all about." For sure you won't soon forget visiting this B&B and meeting these people.

And in case you're wondering about the choice of the ever popular given name of the title.... any details from me would be a major spoiler. So buy a ticket and see for yourself. The title may be familiar but the play is like none other.

John By Annie Baker
Directed by Sam Gold

Cast: Christopher Abbott (Elias), Hong Chau (Jenny), Georgia Engel (Mertis), Lois Smith (Genevieve Marduk)
Scenic Design: Mimi Lien
Costume Design: Asta Bennie Hostetter
Lighting Design: Mark Barton
Sound Design: Bray Poor
Production Stage Manager: Amanda Michaels
Running Time: 3 hours 15 minutes including two intermissions
The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues).
212-244-7529, online by visiting
Tickets $25.00 - $55.00Performances: July 22 - August 16
Tuesday - Friday at 7:30PM; Saturday at 2 and 8PM;Sunday at 2 and 7:30PM
August 17 - September 6 Tuesday - Friday at 7:30PM
Wednesdays at 2PM; Saturday at 2 and 8PM Sunday at 2pm
From 07/22/15 Opened 08/11/15 Ends 09/06/15
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 08/07/15
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©Copyright 2015, Elyse Sommer.
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