Annie Baker is one of America’s most interesting and leading-edge young playwrights, having received numerous honours for her work, including the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for her play The Flick, a slowly paced three-hour play following the conversations of a trio of movie ushers. In 2011, the MTC produced Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, an enchantingly funny and intelligent one-act play about the members of a six-week Creative Drama course. Stylistically, John runs more in parallel with The Flick. Likewise, it’s a three-hour marathon (with two intervals) featuring naturalistically paced dialogue that ranges from kooky and creepy, to mundane and ordinary.
A week after Thanksgiving, Elias (Johnny Carr) and Jenny (Ursula Mills) check-in to a Bed & Breakfast in Gettysburg Pennsylvania run by Mertis (Helen Morse). It’s a classically gaudy B&B filled with trinkets and doilies, but bonding over the kitsch objects doesn’t disguise the fact that this young couple have a fractured relationship. No sooner than they close the door on their room, the muffled sounds of argument permeate their way to the downstairs parlour. The next morning they quarrel when Jenny comments that she thinks Elias munches his cereal too loudly and the spat soon escalates to accusations of anti-Semitism, leaving her bemused.
Their conversations are both trivial and rich with undisclosed history, delivered with the natural camber of real discussion, thanks to Director Sarah Goodes’ faithfulness to Baker’s script. The couple’s conflicts are of course based in deeper issues and gradually we discover that Elias has a profound mistrust of Jenny’s honesty with him. As the couple, Carr and Mills play off each other’s tensions beautifully and while Mills at times brings an uncomfortable demeanour to her performance, it simply adds to the slightly askew style of Baker’s script.
Meanwhile, Mertis potters around sweetly offering hospitality then mysteriously adjusting the clock and telling darkly creepy tales of the building’s original occupants and usage as a medical hospital during the Civil War. She’s almost like a character out of a gothic horror and when she introduces her friend Genevieve (Melita Jurisic), a blind woman who talks frankly about ‘the time she went crazy’ thinking – or knowing – that her husband had taken possession of her mind, we take a sharp turn towards eeriness. Add to this a pianola with a mind of its own and a Christmas tree with lights that flicker whenever Jenny is alone with it, and suddenly the mundanity of the couple’s relationship woes are in counterpoint with the supernatural.
As Mertis, Helen Morse is wonderfully off-putting, at once genuine and calm, while being ever so slightly disturbing. There is room for an even more off-kilter portrayal of the role, but this is made up for by Jurisic, who is every bit ‘the crazy old witch in the house at the end of the street’. A rambling five-minute monologue from Genevieve just prior to the commencement of the second interval is given peculiar depth by Jurisic’s eloquently curling delivery.
Technical aspects of the production are uniformly strong. Elizabeth Gadsby’s costumes are on the money and her enormous set design is beautifully intricate, if somewhat extravagantly adorned with three unessential revolves. Richard Vabre’s lighting design elegantly captures the changing times of day inside the B&B, while Russell Goldsmith’s compositions and sound design bring an incomparable otherworldliness to the production.
Annie Baker does a fantastic line in intriguing dialogue. She might write conversation in an ordinary, life-like way, but the structures of her stories are never less than fascinating. The only concern with this particular story is that, over an extended period, it puts down a captivating foundation for a tale of mystery, but then does nothing with it. The gothic edifice is ultimately bumf around a simple composition of a couple in trouble, where one is clearly cheating and the other is waiting for the moment to prove it and be sure that their relationship is based on lies. Baker seems to have adopted the credo that it’s all about the journey and not the destination.
With that said, the journey is definitely enjoyable, it’s just helpful to know before settling in that this is long-haul entertainment, not the quick and trim variety. The MTC’s new shortened $2 programmes are a welcome improvement, but that reduction in size and fee shouldn’t come at the cost of informing the reader about the number of acts and running time. Be ready for a big night at the theatre, but don’t worry, the two intervals will give you ample comfort breaks and plenty of time to contemplate what the heck is going on in this weird and wonderful production.