Annie Baker is in no hurry to get anywhere fast. She takes the local rather than the express, oblivious of how long before she gets there. Her final destination, however, is always worth the wait.
Baker’s Pulitzer prize-winning 2013 play The Flick, set in a dingy, run-down movie theater in Massachusetts and involving a trio of under-achieving employees menially tasked with scooping up dropped popcorn and mopping spilled soda, lasts over three hours and contains more pregnant pauses than Harold Pinter used in all his plays put together. Plot is non-existent. What Baker is looking for is understated character revelation through realistic albeit mundane dialogue.
Plot also takes a back seat in John, which premiered at the Signature Theater in New York in 2015 and runs a marathon three hours and 20 minutes. The setting this time is a self-consciously cosy bed-and-breakfast establishment in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It’s a week after Thanksgiving, and a house already cluttered to bursting point with bric-a-brac such as dolls, porcelain gnomes, angels and other kitschy figurines also includes a pianola that involuntarily starts playing, a mini jukebox-cum-CD player providing non-stop background music, a grandfather clock, and a large Christmas tree with fairy lights. There’s also a Paris-themed dining room and a staircase leading off to the four guest rooms, all individually named after army heroes of the Civil War.
The owner of the B&B is an eccentric septuagenarian called Mertis (Marylouise Burke), and her only guests are Elias (Tom Mothersdale) and his girlfriend Jenny (Annakei Rose), who are visiting from New York because of Elias’ obsession with the Civil War and its famous landmarks. Within about 10 minutes of their arrival it becomes clear that the couple’s relationship is in trouble. Over breakfast, Jenny accuses Elias of “eating too loudly,” which he interprets as anti-Semitic. It’s the first of several incidents in which Elias reveals himself to be something of an emotional hypochondriac who believes he’s always under attack.
The fourth character in a soulful quartet is Mertis’ 85-year-old friend Genevieve (June Watson), who went blind at age 57, committed herself to a mental institution, and is convinced that her ex-husband John has taken possession of her soul. John, we also discover, is the name of Jenny’s previous boyfriend, whom she may (as Elias suspects) still be seeing.
The other unseen character is George, who, echoing George and Martha’s unseen son in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, may or may not be an arranged fiction. We’re told he’s unwell, but there’s no hint at any time of his presence.
Though the narrative is hardly a page-turner, the natural rhythms of Baker’s dialogue and her meticulous attention to detail create an intriguing, irresistible atmosphere. Regardless of the absence of a plot, it is impossible not to be gripped by the spell the writing casts.
It also turns out that Mertis, who, when we first meet her, puts you in mind of one of the old biddies from Arsenic and Old Lace, is anything but. Her vocabulary reveals an intelligence that belies her eccentricity. Her personal notebooks are filled with phrases in foreign languages. She professes to being a mind reader and considers herself a neo-Platonist.
There is no second-guessing exactly where the play is going. In a five-minute monologue, Genevieve, in relating the seven stages during which she went mad, admits to “a deep but disturbing connection with the soul of every person and every object that had ever existed.” Jenny, who makes a living thinking up questions for a TV game show, obsesses about the inner feelings of inanimate objects – such as a doll she once had called Samantha. By some coincidence, sitting in a miniature chair on one of Mertis’ mantlepieces is a copy of the same doll – also called Samantha.
This leads to a discussion about how dolls are trapped in their own porcelain with a single frozen expression on their faces. It’s a variation of Tennessee Williams’ observation that “we’re all of us sentenced to solitary confinement in our own skins.” Jenny blames herself for not making her own Samantha’s life easier, and understands why the doll was so angry with her and never stopped watching her.
The theme of being watched is elaborated upon on the two occasions Elias tells Jenny a made-up story. Both stories are interrupted at a point when someone or something outside is peering in through a window, watching what is happening inside. And at one point Mertis asks Jenny and Elias if they’ve ever had the feeling they’re being watched by a “larger presence.” Baker continues the doll theme at the very end of the play when the CD jukebox starts playing Olympia’s "Doll Song" from The Tales of Hoffmann. A stunning touch.
There is no question that Baker is treading a tightrope as she grapples with such existential themes as loneliness and the human condition, the need for a connective tissue that binds us all, the inexplicable primordial fears that haunt and taunt us, the doubts and fears that undermine us and the private demons waiting to destroy us. There may not be a plot, but there’s a lot going on, and it is thanks to a dazzling cast, notably Burke, making her National Theatre debut in a multi-layered performance alert to every nuance in Baker’s seemingly haphazard but ultimately brilliantly controlled, thrillingly structured script.
Watson taps into the humor and pathos as Mertis’ octogenarian friend. Mothersdale is convincingly neurotic as the doubt-consumed boyfriend. And Rose cleverly offers much more to her character than initially meets the eye.
Bringing it all together and keeping it buoyant is James Macdonald’s razor-sharp direction. The spookily cute set with its myriad period props is the work of Chloe Lamford, and the mood-enhancing lighting design is by Peter Mumford.
Unequivocally, the best new play in town.