Playwright Annie Baker and director Sam Gold have a remarkable ability to break the basic rules of drama and get away with their transgressions. Not only that, they succeed beautifully.
Baker, who first entered the spotlight with “Circle Mirror Transformation” in 2009 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for “The Flick,” sympathetically explores ordinary people in mundane, often eventless situations, such as adults in a recreational acting class or low-paid ushers at a run-down movie theater.
But in the capable hands of Gold (who just won a Tony for the musical “Fun Home”), her plays become mesmerizing, extremely detailed character portraits where every silent pause is meaningful and time passes quickly — even with three-hour-plus running times.
“John,” Baker’s newest work, which is receiving its world premiere Off-Broadway at Signature Theatre, is set at a deserted, seemingly haunted bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where Elias and Jenny (Christopher Abbott and Hong Chau), a young Brooklyn couple, encounter Mertis (the lovable Georgia Engel), its elderly, friendly, elusive hostess, and Genevieve (a razor-sharp Lois Smith), Mertis’ blind, forthright, paranoid pal.
The sorrowful but good-humored play is packed with seemingly trivial small talk and mysteries that are never resolved. (Why is the place so cold? How did Genevieve become blind, and why does she feel possessed by her former husband? Where is Mertis’ sick husband? Why does Jenny lie compulsively, and why does she feel so attached to a certain American Girl doll?). At least we eventually learn who John is.
Nothing much has happened by the end, except for rising tensions between Elias and Jenny. Nevertheless, “John” is thoroughly captivating for three hours and 15 minutes, most especially thanks to its nuanced performances. You could also spend hours just studying the set design, which is packed full of kitsch and tchotchkes.
“John” runs at the Pershing Square Signature Center through Sept. 6. Visit signaturetheatre.org for more info.