Annie Baker’s new play John envelops us in a cozy yet forbidding space all its own, with its own time and its own rules. It takes place in a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, run by Mertis (Georgia Engel), a chirpy older woman who in the first scene welcomes a younger couple, Elias (Christopher Abbott) and Jenny (Hong Chau), to stay in one of the guest rooms. There is a large Christmas tree near the door and there are miniature tchotchkes everywhere and stuffed animals and dolls, including one large American Girl doll that sits glaring in her chair, and there’s a little “café” section that Mertis calls “Paris.” This is the environment of the play, Mertis’s created environment, and Baker wants it to seem like a miniature universe with the American Girl doll as a judgmental goddess watching over everything. Watching John itself during its over three hour running time is like setting out to sea in a small craft with the scenes rising up like islands every now and then before you depart back out onto the water.
Jenny tells Elias that she used to have the exact same American Girl doll when she was a kid, and this doll scared her because she always looked angry; the doll’s name was Samantha. “Where is your Samantha?” Elias asks Jenny. “In Columbus, in the basement,” Jenny says. “Do you think she’s pissed that you put her in a basement?” Elias asks. Baker gets at something very private and melancholy here, the fate of old toys and how much we attributed feelings to them. Stuffed animals and dolls are sensitive! And Baker knows that, and suggests that, and she suggests a lot more here. For John is a mysterious play sometimes, and it reveals a kind of gabby Irish daydreamer side of Baker that is very appealing. There are moments in this play where you have to wonder how she can possibly write as openly as she does, in a way that’s so fragile and so exploratory, and by the end of John there is an answer: Baker is an old-time romantic on a rather startlingly far-reaching level.
Feeling ill (she’s getting her period), Jenny bails out early on a Gettysburg excursion with Elias and she talks a bit in the front room with Mertis, who tells Jenny that she used to work with her sister at a hospital where there was a doctor who “wasn’t as kind to me as he could have been.” Jenny is looking at her phone while Mertis is talking, doing research for work and also texting her sister, but she still hears what Mertis is saying. Mertis says she ran into this doctor who wasn’t nice to her and told him that she is now running a bed and breakfast. “And that was a nice little moment in my life,” Mertis says. “Yeah!” Jenny says. “Screw that guy.”
The lovely thing about this scene and this moment is that Jenny is only half-listening to Mertis while she does things on her phone, but she still gets the gist of what Mertis is telling her. Baker feels like a modern playwright partly because she pays close attention to modern behavior. A Baby Boomer playwright would have almost certainly had Jenny miss what Mertis was saying while she was on her phone to point up our disconnection because of new technology, blah blah blah, but Baker knows that most of us today can pay attention to two or three things at once. Not close attention. But close attention isn’t always needed.
Soon after this scene we meet Mertis’s friend Genevieve (Lois Smith), a blind woman who talks about the time she went crazy and thought that her ex-husband John had taken possession of her. “The thing about being crazy is it can also all be true,” Genevieve insists, with classic Lois Smith ornery emphasis. Genevieve still feels that John is watching her, and Jenny tells Genevieve and Mertis about the angry Samantha doll that she still feels is watching her as well. Genevieve understands what Jenny is saying right away, and she also understands why Samantha is angry. “To be a piece of plastic or glass and to be shaped into a human form and trapped!” Genevieve thunders. “With one expression on your face! Frozen! People man-handling you!” But Mertis thinks it would be a wonderful thing to be a doll. “To be free of responsibility,” she says softly. “To be able to provide joy to people without even moving. Without even saying anything.”
Baker’s John hits a vein of poetic lyricism at this point and then it shoots up even lyrically further when Jenny talks about a time she got high on pot and felt like she was having sex with the universe. The writing here is so risky (if it didn’t hit just the right notes it might be really lame), but Baker just moves blithely yet mindfully forward, sketching in more and more detail, trusting and defusing her audience. This is a deeply funny play sometimes, but Baker distrusts conformist audience laughter, which is so often laughter for no reason, and so she lets in air and tingly dead space around moments so that we are cut adrift from theatrical convention and brought back to ourselves.
Engel played in Baker’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and it seems as if Baker has tailored the character of Mertis in John for Engel. This is the part of a lifetime for this actress, who is on stage for much of the long running time, even closing and opening the curtains for the two intermissions. This material plays to Engel’s strengths and is rooted in her feathery, ethereal comedy style (Mertis has been given a few too many cute hobbies by Baker, but this slight overkill is forgivable). The play also makes large dramatic demands on Engel when Mertis has to react to the painful disintegration of the relationship between Jenny and Elias, and Engel rises to every one of them.
There is an inner play here about Jenny and Elias moving apart from each other, and then there is an outer play where we keep finding out new facets of Mertis, who at one point confesses that she is a “Neo-Platonist.” Is the bed and breakfast haunted? Baker allows for that possibility. But she also lets us see that Mertis has created a kind of sanctuary, a place of calm and whimsy. And it is Baker’s achievement here that even though we spend over three hours with Mertis and learn so much about her, we still feel that we are only just getting to know her when the play ends on as concentrated a burst of lyric writing in praise of romantic love as can possibly be imagined.