“What do you call an intense drama that makes you laugh your butt off?” asked my friend at intermission during John. I didn’t know, preferring to reserve “dramedy” for anything on the television fall schedule that will have trouble securing sponsorship. Whatever the proper term, it is a form at which Annie Baker excels. With her pieces, it’s always hard to say whether it’s the genuine laughs or the piercing insights which will linger.
Director Sam Gold, a frequent Baker collaborator, knows how to bring out the best in the material. Contrast is explored from the moment Georgia Engel, in character as Mertis Katherine “Kitty” Graven, pulls back the curtain. The set by Mimi Lien is a beautifully detailed bed and breakfast filled to the brim with tchotchkes and then pushed over the top by holiday decorations. In a flash, we know so much about our quirky hostess and her driving desire to create a home away from home. There is something familiar about the scene that is both comforting and disturbing.
Kitty’s latest guests are a young couple whose relationship is bumping against the rocks. Christopher Abbott plays Elias Schreiber-Hoffman like a beaten-down Seth Rogan. Hong Chau manifests his girlfriend, Jenny Chung, a bundle of odd body language who can’t stop seeing herself through the eyes of others. Again, we experience duality, as their arguments plant one foot in “I’ve been there” and the other in “whoa!”. The cast is rounded out by the reliable Lois Smith. Her performance made me want to read earlier drafts to see whether there was a time in which her character was more than a metaphor.
Possibly building on the Pinter Pause, there is the Baker Beat. Many simple actions in John are played out in real time. When a bowl of cereal is poured, rather than the theater convention of a bite or two, it takes ten minutes to consume. This storytelling technique is divisive. While some of us stepped into those moments the way you do when a presenter begins using hushed tones, others squirmed and a few vacated their seats. With tickets at $25 a pop, John presents a wonderful opportunity to explore this Pulitzer Prize winner’s work for yourself.
John is playing at the Signature Theater through September 6, 2015. For tickets and information, visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org/tickets/production.aspx?pid=4241.