Annie Baker has a delightfully inventive mind. This can be a major asset for a young playwright, but it can also lead to eccentricity becoming an end in itself. In John, her new play that opens the Signature Theater's new season, there is an abundance of ideas kicking around -- some funny, some pensive, some just weird -- but to what end they lead is elusive.
Baker, who won last year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama, has things to say about love, trust, relationships, even marriage, and has tossed them together with bits of Stephen King eeriness to turn John into a romantic comedy/drama/ghost tale that is at once intriguing and enigmatic. In fact, there are several ghosts in the play, including a couple of Johns who give the play its title but who never appear on stage.
The action opens with Elias and Jenny arriving late one November night at a B&B in Gettysburg. They have been to her parents for Thanksgiving and are stopping in Pennsylvania so Elias can visit the Civil War battlefield. They are greeted by Kitty, the owner of the inn, who offers them peanut butter fudge before showing them to their room.
The inn itself sets a somewhat creepy tone for the play. A Christmas tree is already up and lit. The sitting room is awash in tchotchkes and figurines. Dolls rest on each step of the stairway leading up to the rooms, and a player-piano is tucked in an alcove. And Kitty herself is more than a little strange.
If Elias and Jenny seem tense from the outset, it's because they are, though we don't learn the reason until later in the play and involves one of the Johns. They are clearly mismatched and it is a wonder they got to a third date let alone to the third year of a serious relationship.
It is Kitty and her friend Genevieve, however, who are the most interesting characters in Baker's play. Georgia Engel delivers a superb deadpan performance as Kitty, the kindly if quirky innkeeper who supposedly has a husband who resides at the back of the house. In one lovely passage, Engel turns a recitation of the names for groups of birds (a gaggle of geese, a kindness of ravens etc.) into a kind of aria.
And no one spins a horror story better than Lois Smith. As the now blind Genevieve she recounts how her ex-husband, also a John, inhabited her soul and drove her mad after she left him. Jenny responds by telling how she had a mysterious orgasm with the universe. One believes Smith's Genevieve, even the part about scorpions attacking her brain. One has the sense that Jenny just had a bad trip on drugs.
One difficulty in this staging is a lack of chemistry between Christopher Abbott's Elias and Hong Chau's Jenny. It's also hard to imagine Abbott's character as a Civil War buff and Chau tends to forget that Jenny is supposedly suffering from severe monthly cramps. It is even harder to imagine any kind of romantic passion between them.
Baker works hard at cultivating a sinister atmosphere. The Christmas tree lights and the player piano, for example, go on and off as though they had a mind of their own. One of the dolls may actually converse with Jenny, who had one just like it as a child, and plays a macabre role in a confrontation between her and Elias.
There is mention of a room upstairs where no guests are allowed, and even the house has a dark history. It once served as a hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg and the back yard was strewn with amputated arms and legs of wounded Union soldiers. But neither Civil War shades nor the antics of the Christmas lights and player-piano nor the off-limits rooms actually figures in the plot and are never explained.
Baker works in a three-act, two intermission form that takes its time unfolding, a bold undertaking in a day when 90-minute intermission-less plays are the norm. It could be worthwhile if there were more of a payoff at the end. Sam Gold's slow-paced direction, including some long pauses during one recent preview, may aim at increasing suspense but are merely tedious. And the business of having Kitty open and close the curtains and turn the hands of a grandfather clock to denote passage of time is more cute than clever.