Arden Theatre Company presents Annie Baker’s ‘John’ (first review)

Three acts, little action

When I got home from seeing the play John, by Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker, I did something I never do: I looked up reviews of the play from its opening in New York two years ago.

From left: Nancy Boykin, Carla Belver, and Jing Xu sip wine and chat. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

The Arden Theatre Company is producing it here, and they have chosen so many fine plays over the years. Still, I couldn’t figure a few things out. The play was hailed by New York critics, yet what I saw was flat and uninteresting, and I only endured the three-hour show due to its two intermissions.

Jenny (Jing Xu) and Elias (Kevin Meehan) have decided to stay at a bed-and-breakfast in historic Gettysburg on a trip east to fulfill Elias’s passion for history. We see, from the very beginning, that the couple is having relationship issues that will pervade the entire visit.  

Home for the holiday

The setting is the home of eccentric Mertis Graven (Nancy Boykin), lavishly decorated in Christmas trimmings since it is the week after Thanksgiving. It is also filled with dolls and miniatures. They are charming and cute, but there is a weirdness that hovers over the place as much as it hovers over Mertis and her never-seen husband. Add to the mix Mertis’s best friend, the equally strange (and blind to boot) Genevieve (Carla Belver), and the ingredients are there for an interesting piece of theater. It doesn’t materialize.

When Jenny and Elias argue, it is empty. While Mertis wanders about the house, we watch but don’t care. There are no events; there is little new information to alter the flow and ignite the drama. Only the entry of Genevieve brings us some comic relief, but it doesn’t last long.

Clearly Baker has written a simple, rather naturalistic piece which evolves without being forced. Time itself is an element in her style. But to be effective, the play needs a powerful cast, and the Arden production is not strong enough. One feels that in many cases, this is little more than a staged read-through rather than a performance. The actors so often are merely talking. Were we not in the theater, we would probably tune out. Matthew Decker, who has directed some fine pieces for the Arden as well as elsewhere in Philadelphia, has not put the pieces of this puzzling play together to make it work.

To read Mark Cofta's review, click here.

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