Three acts, plenty of action

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

3 minute read
Kevin Meehan's Elias lets loose at Jing Xu's Jenny. (Photo by Mark Garvin)
Kevin Meehan's Elias lets loose at Jing Xu's Jenny. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

What a shame, if all plays were successful in the same way.

Studying theater, or any storytelling form, encourages certain assumptions: There must be conflict, something must be at stake, someone must be the protagonist, and all details must serve this structure. Moreover, these days, plays should be 90 minutes long, or at most two hours, including one intermission. Plays should be tidy constructions, clearly right or wrong, bad or good.

Annie Baker's John says no.

Baker seems to know what she's doing. The Aliens, produced locally by Theatre Exile, and Circle Mirror Transformation, at Theatre Horizon, were deservedly praised. The Flick, though chastened for its three-hour length, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Still, the word about John as produced by the Arden Theatre Company is that it was tedious and devoid of action. I'm glad I braved it anyway.

Hints of haunting

Director Matthew Decker -- whose production of Circle Mirror Transformation earned several Barrymore Award nominations -- stages John with the care it deserves. The situation seems straightforward: Elias (Kevin Meehan) and Jenny (Jing Xu) arrive at a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, bed-and-breakfast the weekend after Thanksgiving. Their strained three-year relationship needs a vacation.

Nancy Boykin plays cheery host Mertis, who tries in a familiarly ingratiating B&B style to make the couple comfortable but can't help interfering in their squabbles. Her historical home is almost a character in itself, designed by Tim Mackabee with hunter-green walls and dark wood trim and festooned with Christmas lights, trees, red bows, and dolls everywhere.

The situation is funny-creepy or, Elias explains, "more tragic than scary." Some of this effect stems from the play's world: A player piano comes alive on its own. Mertis's American Girl doll disturbs Jenny because her own childhood doll appeared to judge her. Mertis sets the radio overnight to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (better known as the perennial haunted-house organ song).

The otherworldliness also comes from small meta-touches: When scenes change, Mertis spins the grandfather clock's hands to the new scene's time. When acts end, she walks to the red act curtain and pulls it across the stage.

Hints of hauntings, Mertis's bizarre journal entries describing ominous sunsets, and her cheerful admission that "I'm also a tiny bit of a mind reader" further advance a supernatural vibe that intertwines with Jenny and Elias's increasingly raw relationship tension. Mertis's friend Genevieve, played by the always-fascinating Carla Belver, adds to the sense of mystery and impending madness. Genevieve is blind, which often has special meaning in drama, going back to the ancient Greeks.

A case for ambiguity

Baker's not reluctant to allow pauses, which can seem deadly but are lauded in plays by Harold Pinter and others. She also allows events to unfold in leisurely real time, which on stage insists that we focus on seemingly tiny everyday actions. John sets its own pace, playing in its own minor key; that it's difficult to categorize is a compliment.

John simmers rather than rising to a spectacular or violent boil, though devices seem to align that way: Nighttime drinking, candlelight, angry confrontations, frank discussions of dreams; in a typical story, it would all explode. Instead, while those complaining that nothing happens are correct in a conventional sense -- the Jenny-Elias story that crescendos with the play's last line could be a taut 10-minute play -- much is revealed that resonates during John's two hours and 45 minutes, and long after.

To read Frank Burd's review, click here.

What, When, Where

John. By Annie Baker. Matthew Decker directed. Through February 26, 2017, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or

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