“Everybody knows somebody named John” sighs Geraldine at the midpoint of Annie Baker’s multi-faceted, kaleidoscopic meditation on love and loneliness. John is an odd piece of work: 3 hours 20 mins in length (with two intervals), almost indescribable in both its limitless scope of ideas and its constrained setting.
What we can agree on: Elias (Tom Mothersdale ) and Jenny (Anneika Rose) check into Mertis’s (Marylouise Burke) Gettysburg B&B one stormy night, looking to sate the former’s incessant curiosity over the American Civil War. We can also agree that, from the look of things, their marriage is very much on the rocks (determining the fate of the union, anyone?). But what we’re unlikely to come to any consensus on is everything in between this skeletal framework.
Chloe Lamford’s ultra-wide-screen set stretches elegantly across the Dorfman’s stage: the ground floor of a quaint guesthouse. To our right, the entrance hall, sofas, trinkets, and newspapers; to our left, the cluster of café-culture tables, coffee urns, and miniature fridges that demarcate the breakfast area, distastefully named ‘Paris’ in big metal letters.
Bang in the centre, a double-flight staircase stretches into the accommodation, flanked by rows upon rows of Victorian dolls. Little touches of detail abound: small trinkets, nostalgic fragments of lost times, and idiosyncratic visual flourishes furnish this house.
Framed as a ‘comedy’, Baker’s play contains a distinctly prescient sense of the supernatural: lights flicker on and off, ancient dolls stare down from peeling walls, and the conversation inevitably turns to ‘silent watchers’ (whether God or a perverted universe). Mertis, channelling severe savant vibes, comments that there are rooms within rooms, doors behind doors, and that the B&B can be ‘a little temperamental’. Her husband, George, is kept locked behind a door at all times – and is never seen.
To move day into night, and vice versa, Mertis must herself turn the hands on her clock as the violet light pawing at the bay windows recedes into darkness. Her blind friend, Geraldine (Marylouise Burke), is convinced that she’s been possessed by her husband, and sits alone in the dark listening to readings of HP Lovecraft. Sometimes, her mutterings about ‘rustling’ and dead-eyed stares evoke the disquieting feeling that she can sense us, the audience. At one point, Elias even reads from a diary he finds lying around in an ancient tongue, only to find that his words have activated the mechanical piano.
Similarly, tragedy and poignancy frequently seep into the oddly jovial proceedings. In two incredible, intense sequences, the dating couple muster the rage to howl intense, soul-shattering screams across the room at each other. In another, Geraldine interrupts the second interval to deliver an emotional powerhouse of a monologue on going mad within a perfect five-minute timeframe, giving the devastating line ‘Imagine that: Sitting in the centre of your own life with no thoughts at all about what other people are thinking.’ right as the alarm bell goes off.
But what does it all mean? The cumulative effect of three hours of scintillating conversation, and even more telling silences gives some sort of impression of ‘ecstatic truth’: a deep-seated revelation of the character of love, relationships, and loss that I couldn’t attempt to explain even with thousands of words to spare.
One gets the impression that Baker has accurately explained the difference between ‘love’ and ‘true love’, alongside pertinent discussions on 21st Century racial politics, gender roles, and the ageing process in the space of only a few hours. Like the creepy ephemera drifting atmospherically through her play, these realisations form a much bigger, more meaningful epiphany than the sum of their parts. Fundamentally, as Jenny drunkenly notes, John conjures the feeling of being ‘less alone in [our] aloneness’.