“Are We Supposed to Hear Them?”

The quietly revolutionary interplay between playwright and audience in Annie Baker’s John.

Hong Chau and Christopher Abbott in John.
Hong Chau and Christopher Abbott in John.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

The curtain doesn’t rise at the start of Annie Baker’s John, which opened Tuesday night off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre. Instead, Mertis Katherine Graven, the elderly proprietor of a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, bed and breakfast, pulls open the red drapes as if to greet the audience. Mertis, played by Georgia Engel, shuffles slowly and silently around the wide stage, lighting candles, turning on the Christmas tree lights, switching on a mini-jukebox—the kind your grandparents bought at the Sharper Image years ago—to play a classical tune that will serve as an underscore for the bulk of the play.

John’s slow, nearly silent start doesn’t come as a surprise. And neither, for that matter, does the 3½-hour running time, broken up by two intermissions. The 34-year-old playwright’s last show, The Flick, is one of the most divisive Pulitzer-winning plays in recent memory. While its current remounting at the Barrow Street Theatre is a commercial success, now extended through January 2016, its initial run at Playwrights Horizons—three-hours-long, rich with prolonged awkward silences—saw so many walkouts from subscribers that Playwrights’ artistic director Tim Sanford issued a written defense of the play.

Sanford’s controversial letter to subscribers may explain why Baker and her regular collaborator, Sam Gold (who picked up a Tony this summer for directing Fun Home on Broadway), moved down the block to the Signature for the first of three plays in her five-year residency. The Flick’s response may also have inspired a more comfortable setting—a homey bed and breakfast, draped in floral patterns and littered with tchotchkes—and a cast that’s made up of two actors in their late 20s and two well past middle age. But, as Baker admitted at an event celebrating the publication of The Flick and her modern translation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at a New York bookstore in January, the experience also inspired her to “push the boundaries of theater” even more—that is, to produce a follow-up that was even longer, more aggressively subtle and quiet, and larger in philosophical scope. In doing so, John surpasses its predecessor and becomes Baker’s true masterpiece: an examination of the murkiness of human relationships in which one of those relationships is the one between an audience and a playwright.

John follows a young couple of Brooklynites, Elias and Jenny (Christopher Abbott and Hong Chau), who stop through Gettysburg to see the battlefields on their way back home after spending Thanksgiving with Jenny’s family in Ohio. The tension between the two is evident as soon as they silently and awkwardly set foot into the B&B and are led upstairs to their unseen room. Half of John is about their crumbling relationship, the play’s title a reference to the man with whom Jenny has had an affair (and with whom Elias is suspicious she is still in contact).

But the title also refers to the ex-husband of the play’s fourth character, a bitter blind friend of Mertis’ named Genevieve (played by the luminous Lois Smith). Smith’s Genevieve enters in the play’s second act after Jenny is left behind with Mertis while Elias goes off on his own to tour the battlegrounds. It’s in the second act that John’s larger themes come into play as Genevieve details the experience of leaving her John, only to be haunted by his ghostly voice inside her head—despite him being very much alive. The blind woman also hears noises all around her that can’t quite be explained, whispers and murmurs inaudible to Mertis and Jenny.

Is the old house haunted? Mertis certainly alludes to it, suggesting that certain rooms in the house have prickly personalities that don’t sit well with some guests. Several scenes take place in the couple’s upstairs room, where their muffled, indecipherable arguments take on the quality of a haunting. There’s also Mertis’ husband, suffering from an unknown illness and remaining unseen and unheard throughout the play. And then there’s Samantha, the American Girl doll that sits atop a rocking chair next to the stairs, which triggers Jenny’s memory of owning—and being deathly afraid of—the same doll as a child. (It’s a mass-produced doll, after all, so its appearance in the bed and breakfast is surely a coincidence, right?)

Why is John 3 ½ hours long? Some audience members might describe that duration as punishing. I found it inspiring. More than any play I’ve seen recently, John acknowledges, and even celebrates, the act of watching a play in a theater. Engel opens those drapes, and then closes them at the end of each act. The lights return so that theater patrons can check their playbills, make conversations, or run to the bathroom before the 10-minute intermission ends. And in between intermissions, Baker stretches each moment out, draws every reserve of the audience’s attention, so that you never lose sight of the fact that you’re in a theater, watching these people perform.

It’s not that rare to see a show acknowledge its audience, of course; several productions on and off Broadway currently have a character or two addressing the audience—and John does, as well, with Smith’s character peeking through the curtain at the second intermission to deliver a frenzied monologue about her descent into insanity. But those shows usually present an invisible two-way mirror at their proscenium, allowing the actors on stage to accept the audience members beneath them but hardly the opposite. In Baker’s John, however, the audience is as part of the play as the four actors walking the boards—not through gimmickry but through dialogue, patience, and pace.

 “Have you ever felt that you’re being watched,” Mertis asks her guests, “as if someone is looking over you?” She might be posing a question about God, or any governing, celestial presence—however you may define it. But as I watched John, I came to think that she was talking about us, the audience. After all, the words are spoken by an actress who is, eight times a week, being watched, being looked after, by several hundred people. Could the sounds that Genevieve hears in the distance—which are keeping her, as she puts it, clinically insane—in fact be the sounds of the frustrated audience members on the other side of the proscenium, mumbling to their dates about why the show is so quiet, why there are so many pauses in the dialogue? (“What did they say?” audience members muttered during those inaudible scenes set upstairs. “Are we supposed to hear them?”)

John, like any great play, raises a lot of questions—not just about the human experience, but also about the state of contemporary theater. It does not provide many answers; it’s not the play or the playwright’s responsibility to do so. The audience members, on the other hand, have the opportunity to unravel these mysteries on their own. Most playwrights and plays push their audiences’ buttons, but they rarely allow for the audience to poke back. That’d be rude, after all. Annie Baker, on the other hand, seems to be one of the few artists working in the theater today who anticipates it and uses an audience to her own advantage. In John she co-opts the viewer for her own aesthetic use, heightening the tension onstage and deepening the quiet relationships between her characters. Through John, she displays an understanding that the audience is part of the theatrical experience, an inevitability as certain as a Chekhovian gun.