John at The Dorfman (National Theatre)
3rd February, 2018
“It’s like miniature shit”
And sadly, it is, despite many favourable reviews. Young couple Jenny (Anneika Rose) and Elias (Tom Mothersdale), heading back to Brooklyn after spending Thanksgiving with Jenny’s parents, stop off at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania which is a tourist site of Civil War conflict and carnage.
We have already met the oddball Mertis (American actress, Marylouise Burke), who has rooms called after Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Joshua Chamberlain. As the guests quarrel, Jenny spends more time with Mertis and her blind friend Genevieve (June Watson), bonding over a bottle of wine, talking about love. The lovers argue again; the women talk. Over red wine, Mertis’s blind friend, Genevieve explains her journey to make peace with that inescapable gaze, how she’s come to feel that watching as a kind of acceptance. Amidst all this are prolonged periods of silence whether for reflection, unexpected consequence or inability to verbally expand or engage. To indicate the close of an act, Mertis pulls the stage curtains together.
Chloe Lamford’s detailed set integrates with every theme in the play. A central staircase climbs high to the unheated, possibly haunted guest rooms; a dining area aspires to be Parisian; a grandfather clock marks the passing of time yet controlled by Mertis; every wall and surface at this weird establishment is crammed with knickknacks and glassy-eyed dolls; a mini-Wurlitzer jukebox. Even a self-playing pianola bursts into chirpy melody without warning. The Hitchcock setting promises so much, despite its contrived nature.
On the surface nothing much happens but this is not Waiting for Godot. “Everyone knows someone named John” declares Mertis perhaps alluding to John Doe, symbol of the American Everyman. Director James MacDonald’s production is minutely detailed, and, in true Annie Baker style, slow but despite my patience, ultimately boring.
The play runs to three hours and twenty minutes, with two intervals, one of which is partially seized with a front of curtain speech by Genevieve, who has begun the second act with the words “That was around the time I went crazy, ” and now breaks the fourth wall to explain the seven stages of her madness,”Imagine that,” she adds solemnly. “Sitting in the centre of your own life with no thoughts at all about what other people are thinking.”
Annie Baker’s renowned drama The Flick was seen at this same theatre in 2016 and won last year’s Critics Circle Theatre Award for Best Play. It also picked up the Pulitzer prize in New York. As a result, we could sense the buzz of expectation of Baker fans around us, some enthusing at the intervals; others, like us, disappointed. Conversations drift in and out of focus so that we accumulate information but are denied interpretation. The tedious writing meanders along with little depth or character enrichment. We no longer care whether Mertis’s husband, George even exists or why she talks of the rooms upstairs existing only occasionally. However, the actors do their best with a limp script.
Essentially, the play is about storytelling: the stories we tell ourselves and the lies we tell each other; our loneliness. John is American for ‘toilet’ and that’s where the play belongs. So this is one self-indulgent narrative that I won’t be sharing.