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A CurtainUp DC Review

"I felt less alone being alone. I meant I felt more lonely but less alone. No. Sorry. More alone but less lonely. Less alone in my loneliness." —Jenny, describing watching the night sky.
john Nancy Robinette (Photo by Margot Schulman) align="center">
The quote above was written by Annie Baker, the playwright who has won many awards for plays that are now being produced in many countries. If the sentence above seems enigmatic so is John, now a DC premiere at Signature Theatre.

Baker's Pinter-like true-to-life silent pauses make room for thoughts whether or not they are articulated in the script. They add to the piece not distract and that's good since the three and a half hour play — not everyone made it to the end— is the antithesis of instant anything. Time which moves slowly is measured by the manual manipulation of a Grandfather clock.

Paige Hathaway's set and Andrew Cissna's lighting are as important as the four actors on stage. They make a B&B in Gettysburg, that was a hospital during the Civil War, feel like a haunted house. It has its quirks. Lit dimly, the main room contains ugly furniture, a fully loaded Christmas tree, a player piano that makes tinny sounds, an old fashioned jukebox that plays Bach, and a toy train that toots. All flat surfaces are cluttered with dolls, figurines, and table lamps that shed little light.

Enter a young couple, Elias (Jonathan Feuer) and Jenny (Anna Moon). They are driving home to Brooklyn from visiting Jenny's parents who live in Ohio. Jenny, a beautiful, refined Asian-American, in a lovely performance by Anna Moon, likes to be told stories, preferably scary ones. Elias, who describes himself as a Jewish atheist, lacks couth. He's from California. His parents are hippies. His family yells at one another and, to Jenny's chagrin, he slurps his food. They are, as they might put it, "having issues."

The reason for the stopover in Gettysburg is because Elias, a Civil War buff since childhood, wants to visit the battle fields and take the night-time ghost tour. But Jenny, who does not feel well and, besides, is distracted by incoming text messages, does not join him. Nancy Robinette— a very well known and much loved Washington actress, who is often cast in sad, ditzy or comic roles (and sometimes all three at once) —gives a perfectly controlled performance as Mertis, who runs the B&B.

Completing the quartet on stage is Ilona Dulaski as Mertis's best friend, the sharp-tongued Genevieve. Although she is blind she manages to "see" what is going on. Her soliloquy at the end of the second act breaks some theatrical rules and surprises the audience. Director Joe Calarco is to be commended for bringing out the best in all his actors.

Although John is long, the dialogue and plot never lose intrigue. Baker's talent is not just the quirkiness of her plays but her approach to slow disclosure. Audiences may leave the theater wondering "what does it mean" but days later they realize they have witnessed an original, puzzling play that makes them think.

For more about Annie Baker and links to reviews of her plays reviewed at Curtainup, see our Annie Baker page in our Playwrights Album

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John by Annie Baker
Directed by Joe Calarco
Cast: Ilona Dulaski (Genevieve); Jonathan Feuer (Elias); Anna Moon (Jenny); Nancy Robinette (Mertis).
Scenic Design by Paige Hathaway
Costume Design by Debra Kim Sivigny
Lighting Design by Andrew Cissna
Running time: 3 hours and 30 minutes with two 15-minute intermissions
April 3 to 29, 2018.
Reviewed by Susan Davidson at April 10, 2018 performance.

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