What interest could Annie Baker possibly have in kitsch? This was the question bothering me as I headed into her new play, John, which takes place in a Gettysburg bed-and-breakfast so encrusted with tchotchkes — teddy bears, trolls, toy trains, gnomes, angels, samplers, Christmas crap, candles — that you may come to think you are actually trapped inside one. Surely the author of The Flick and The Aliens and Circle Mirror Transformation, all of which valorize society’s strugglers and stragglers, hadn’t gone cute or, worse, parodic? No, it quickly becomes clear that the owner of the B&B, Mertis Katherine Graven, known as Kitty, is not being offered as a caricature of eccentric old-ladyhood, despite her fondness for dolls and quack diets, and despite being played by the marvelously dippy Georgia Engel, a human tchotchke herself. Nor are the other characters, with their fibs and phobias and psychopathology, here to be mocked. But what are they here for? And what is Baker up to, filling three acts and three and a half hours with the homely minutiae of love, loss, and hospitality?
Quite a lot, it turns out, even though (as is typical for Baker’s plays) you first have to submit to a radical reorientation of time and scale to get there. She and her joined-at-the-hip director, Sam Gold, work on a large canvas, but the cropping is very tight. Much goes on outside the frame. The first thing that happens in John (after Kitty laboriously draws open the old-timey stage curtains) is that guests arriving outside the B&B apparently knock something over. (What is it? We never find out.) These guests turn out to be Elias and Jenny, a 30-ish couple stopping in Gettysburg on the way back to Brooklyn from a family visit in Ohio. Although we quickly understand that there is tension between them, we do not know exactly what is going on; part of the first scene takes place upstairs, where Kitty escorts them to the Chamberlain room, named for the defender of Little Round Top. We hear only muffled snatches of dialogue. This is hilarious, somehow, a joke not just about plays but people: So much of what happens in a life is really only happening near it. We are not given to understand everything.
But slowly, no faster than necessary, we adjust to the quiet (and to Mark Barton’s crepuscular light) and begin to discern more. Kitty turns out to be an oddball, yes, but a deep thinker, too: “I’m a Neo-Platonist,” she reveals. She keeps journals in which she describes, in terrifying prose, each day’s sunset. (“By 4:45, phosphorescent oranges, grotesque reds, and blasphemous purples slashed open the sky.”) She cares for a sickly husband, unseen, and a dear friend, unseeing. (Genevieve Marduk, played by the fierce Lois Smith, is blind.) She has suffered and also rescued herself from suffering. In this she provides a sharp contrast to Elias and Jenny, who are trapped in the disaster of their relationship and, instead of looking for the exit, burrow into it deeper. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a couple’s blowout arguments rendered as accurately as Baker renders them here: unfair, nonsequential, compulsive, zingerless. This is not Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with its polished knives. Still, the Albee play is the only comparison I can find for Baker’s dramatization of the way such arguments eat up and eventually become the relationship. Neurotic Elias and passive-aggressive Jenny, with their interlocking injuries, are only “happy” rubbing their sores.
Though Baker gets a lot of mileage out of the contrast between their misery and Kitty’s bonhomie, she is not making fun of either, even when Elias admits that his girlfriends always end up looking like insects, and Jenny begins to feel that the American Girl doll Samantha in the stairwell is angry at her. (The objects in John are nearly alive; a player piano makes impromptu comments on the action with songs like “Glad Rag Doll” and “Me and My Shadow.”) Rather, Baker is trying to extend to characters in extremis the intense realism — not stage realism but real realism — usually denied them in plays. She and Gold have always asked their audiences to share their patient fascination with humans doing the work of living, whether cleaning a movie theater or taking classes at a community center. Here they are focused more particularly on people in their most liminal states: the elderly, the blind, the crazy, and (not so different, really) lovers at the end of the road. How does Baker make such people dramatic without making them melodramatic? Pretty much as she has always done, through carefully observed action. One eats noisily, one resets the grandfather clock, one listens to a reading of Lovecraft, one checks (or pretends to check) her cell phone when the text alert dings. Anything we’re going to understand about them is going to have to come through such channels.
This dramaturgy makes extraordinary demands on actors — and, for that matter, designers. (There’s no propmaster credited in the program, so I’m going to give the kudos for the insane set to scenic designer Mimi Lien, surely now New York’s finest bricoleur.) As the young couple, Christopher Abbott and Hong Chau are a bit tentative; they have mastered the necessary narrow focus but are still working to project it outward. Engel, though, is a revelation. That rare adult whose face naturally defaults to a smile, she knows from pleasing; but her attention to everything around her, animate or not, is never less than a wonder. Her scenes with the cantankerous Smith are so loving, funny, and real they seem almost sacred.
Creepy, too. John hovers on the edge of metaphysics. (The title refers to men in two of the characters’ lives who have a weird, baleful power over them.) It’s no accident that the B&B is the site of a former Civil War hospital; the play is haunted. It is also so expansive that it becomes, in the third act, when you want it to buckle down, a bit unsatisfyingly diffuse. I sense that this is intentional. Baker is interested in the grace that may accompany great age and suffering, but why leave it there? The kitschy figurines are eventually incorporated into her embrace of what it means to be human, as are the dead. Neither, at any rate, could be worse at expressing themselves than the actual characters. Each time Jenny asks Elias to tell her a scary story he fails: “I can only do buildup to scary,” he says. “Not scary itself.” Happily, Baker doesn’t have that problem. With no special effects except that player piano, she’s produced a real ghost story, which is to say a semblance of life.
John is at the Signature Theatre through September 6.