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A CurtainUp Review
John review when it opened by Simon Saltzman
Audiences for whom life on the stage is best served in fast forward, are likely to have a hard time with Baker's plays. However, the success of Circle Mirror Transformation and The Flick (currently enjoying an extended run downtown), confirmed Baker as a vital new dramatic voice. Her deliberately confined and delicately controlled writing style is refreshing, and in John contains bold flashes of magic realism with its disregard for the plausible. Her plays are certainly unlike any of her contemporaries. While some might see her the influence of Pinter, her pauses are distinctly Bakeresque and not copycat Pinteresque.
The story of John is partly illusive but also partly exactly what is played out in front of us. Yes, patience is required and the payoff is (curiously) telegraphed and no surprise, though in retrospect that hardly seems important.
A splendid cast under Sam Gold, Baker's director of choice are co-creators of a mood that will have you chortling one minute and sending shivers down your spine the next. Be prepared for a good many strange and unsettling events, all of which take place in Mertis's (Georgia Engle) Bed & Breakfast in the historic Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg where Jenny (Hong Chau) and her boy-friend of three years Elias (Christopher Abbott) have booked a room for the weekend while they visit the Civil War sites.
As the play begins, Mertis will have you wondering why she's been assigned to slowly and cautiously walk the length of the curtain-drawn stage only to be the one to pull it open. This remains her job for all three acts, as is the task of periodically re-setting the hands of a grandfather clock. Is she in charge of time?
In her bedroom slippers, Mertis is no hurry, (and, at least for a while, that's likely to be true for the audience). The view of the beautiful candle-lit interior setting designed by Mimi Lien is in itself worth taking everything in slowly, so is Mark Barton's lighting design which is well beyond atmospheric. It's evening and Christmas and the B & B's decorations are notable for their collection of gnomes, trolls, dolls, angels, a lovely lighted jukebox radio, a menagerie of miniatures fill all the nooks and crannies.
Mertis, who declares "most people just call me Kitty" immediately appears eccentric and probably well on her way to senility — but not enough so to keep her from taking care of her establishment and also of an apparently sickly husband. Though he's never seen he may or may not be somewhere in the house. A regular visitor is her best friend Genevieve who is blind, mystical and possibly clairvoyant or not. Her shoulder length white hair gives her an angelic look. She is played by the wonderful Lois Smith, who also has a task outside of her character: that is telling a five-minute story in front of the curtain after the second intermission. It is a relevant story, and it's purposefully spooky.
Elias and Jenny (Christopher Abbott and Hong Chau) are the only paying guests and their relationship is quickly perceived to be on shaky grounds. He is critical, judgmental, accusatory and harshly insensitive toward Jenny whose every remark ignites a challenge. Yet he says he loves her. She seems to be defensive and cower at his accusations that she lies to him, and also makes fun of his Jewish eating habits. Really. She has secrets. Really. Yet in the midst of their unease they make love.
Both Abbott and Chau are ultra real presences and in a perpetual state of emotional turmoil. They are diametrically out of synch with the ephemeral and dotty behavior of Mertis and Genevieve who live in a universe controlled by the unseen. So what it is that makes Jenny say to Elias: "Tell me a scary story" as they sit alone in the dark. All of whom, however, share a fear of being watched, by God, by ghosts, by forces that can make the lights on the Christmas tree flicker.
Baker's fans will embrace this 3-hour,3 act departure from her Massachussetts settings and total naturalism,. Whether enchanted or exhausted, it's not easy to sum up with a simple "here's what it's all about." For sure you won't soon forget visiting this B&B and meeting these people.
And in case you're wondering about the choice of the ever popular given name of the title.... any details from me would be a major spoiler. So buy a ticket and see for yourself. The title may be familiar but the play is like none other.