John, Annie Baker’s much anticipated follow-up to her Pulitzer-winning The Flick, traffics copiously in the unseen, the unspoken, and the ethereal. Only four characters populate the stage, but none are ever independent of the many forces and people – parents, ex-lovers, childhood memories – that shape their daily existence. It is an ethereal and psychologically probing play that asks its audience to dwell less on the specific events of the evening’s performance than on the kaleidoscope of history that has come together to shape those events.
This approach is in many ways familiar to the important work of Baker, who has always been a playwright more interested in the unsaid than the said, examining in her characters the resonance of far more experiences than those dramatized in the brief timespans of her plots. But John turns these concerns more directly inward than they have been in Baker’s previous work. Her first play that departs the setting of Vermont also seems to be the first to wander from the territory of her beloved Chekov and into the domain of Albee and Shepard, American masters of the ethereal and psychological. It is new terrain for Baker, but John’s unevenness reveals she has not yet mastered it. The play is nonetheless an ambitious move from this playwright, showing in its best moments that Baker and her longtime directorial collaborator Sam Gold can command great eloquence in silence.
The play takes place at the amply knick-knacked bed and breakfast of Mertis (Georgia Engel) during the holidays in Gettysburg. Elias (Christopher Abbott) and Jenny (Hong Chau), a young couple whose relationship is treading troubled waters, stop for a few nights to soak up some history while passing through town. Over the course of the play we learn a bit (though not much) about the history of their tension, about the rocky past simmering underneath Mertis’s unassailable cheerfulness, and about the psychological turmoil of Mertis’s best friend Genevieve (Lois Smith). But the specifics of their experiences are less important to this play than is the struggle shared by them all to reconcile oneself with the weight of the past. A sense of being watched is a theme that runs throughout the play, shared to various degrees by each of its characters, as Baker hints often at the presence of the otherworldly. But ghosts would be too easy of an answer for these tormented characters. Their demons are very much within.
The play is at its best in the second act when Elias and Jenny voice the problems of their relationship most overtly. These are the moments when the play’s tension seems to be most clear, but even here Baker shows delicately and expertly that Elias and Jenny’s fight is rooted much more in the historical and psychological context of the fight than in any specific actions by either character.
John is less successful in its third act when Baker probes more deeply into her characters’ psyches. Every degree of awkwardness in every excruciating pause of The Flick’s three hours seemed purposeful and necessary, but the same dramaturgical approach is less crisp in this play’s three-and-a-half hours. These characters are less knowable than Baker’s previous creations, and as a result they remain at a distance, the content of their silence less accessible. The result is often feelings of alienation rather than empathy. Baker and Gold deserve full credit for pushing themselves with this play in challenging and ultimately exciting new directions, but John never quite achieves the heights of its considerable ambition.