How Annie Baker’s Disturbing Genius Is Shaking Up Theater

The Daily Beast

August 3, 2015

Who is the John of the title of Annie Baker’s latest play at the off-Broadway Signature Theatre?

He’s absent, for sure, during the play, but his presence is keenly felt by the young couple at its center, played by Christopher Abbott and Hong Chau.

They have gone away for a few days, and when the curtain rises we are at their destination, a guesthouse in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Abbott wants to visit the famous battlefield, while he and Chau’s relationship is its own battlefield, with possibly fatal harm being inflicted on it by both parties.

The inn seems warm and inviting at first glance: tchotchke-filled, lush Christmas tree, cozy, with plump sofas and a jukebox playing inoffensive seasonal and classical music.

But there’s also something—at once funny and menacing—about its landlady, played by Georgia Engel. She wanders around saying sweetly daffy things, but she also keeps her glance level and unswerving on her guests.

The domestic universe she presides over seems hushed and intimate, while at the same time strange and mysterious and lost in its own time—underscored by Engel going over to the grandfather clock to push time forward to change scenes. What is the fate of her husband, whom we never see, and what is eating the young couple?

Soon their arguing and sniping rise in timbre and venom, not least when Chau’s character insists that one of the inn’s dolls is the one she owned as a little girl. Infidelity and suspicion between Abbott and Chau rattle the hush.

The suffused menace and dark undertow of John is mirrored in the other Baker play showing in New York at the moment—the brilliant The Flick, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Like John, The Flick, playing at the Barrow Street Theater until January, features a small group of characters—three in The Flick’s case—who work at a rundown Massachusetts movie theater.

Just as with John, Baker unpacks their quietly desperate lives—thwarted ambition, unfulfilled desire, family suffering—leading them and us to a subtly devastating conclusion.

The linking factor is the genius—truly, no exaggeration—behind their crafting and execution. On the outside these are small lives, but only on the outside. As you follow the theater workers in The Flick, and in John the young couple and the daffy-seeming innkeeper, you are enveloped in the lives and minds of absorbing, complicated characters.

And all the time, you’re following them up and down stairs, or as they lie down on the couch, or get horny, or give up, or eat breakfast. The stage is its own mischievous playground in Baker’s work, even when, in The Flick, it is—like the audience watching it—situated in the seats of a theater.

One of the first scenes in John, initially couched in humor and then turning serious, sees Chau’s character recoil at her partner’s loud crunching of cereal. It is brilliantly excruciating. Quite a few times watching The Flick and John, you realize you are laughing, and then suddenly not laughing.
The ingenuity of Baker’s work is not just in her writing but also its staging—both plays are directed by Sam Gold and include clever sleights of directorial hand that demand the audience’s greater attention than simply focusing on Baker’s words—techniques they elaborated on in a recent New York Times interview. (Baker declined to be interviewed by The Daily Beast for this article.)

In The Flick, minutes go by with the characters sweeping and mopping the floors, or looking up at the projectionist’s box. In John, near the beginning, the two young characters and Engel disappear upstairs to check out their bedroom, and the stage is empty as we strain to listen to the muffled words being spoken offstage.

Throughout the play, there are silences, gaps in conversations, and missed beats. Engel seems both benign and also a little terrifying. Why are all these dolls positioned everywhere, just looking?

The night I was in the audience, a moronic man in front of me kept asking, “Why is everyone laughing?” when we laughed at Baker’s odd wordplay and staging tricks. He also complained about a lack of things happening and how long it was going on.

And so, if it helps a Baker newbie: Go to both plays expecting to be there for just over three hours. There are intervals, but the magic—and it feels like a magic—of Baker and Gold’s staging is that you are drawn into the at once very small and very big worlds of these characters.

Baker’s skill is to make us work hard as an audience to make our own sense of her play—the best, most enriching way to view any theatrical performance. Baker’s works are not for those who want easy, A-leads-to-B plots, and spoon-fed meanings.

There is a fourth character in John, a blind friend of Engel’s, played (perfectly, bracingly) by Lois Smith, who brings a vinegary energy to the play, and whose presence on stage proves unexpected at different moments.

Just as the intimacies and hurtful words and deceptions of The Flick take place in a quiet movie theater, so the deceptive mild hush of the inn in John provides the effective counterfoil for the roiling emotions in the couple’s relationship, as well as the ambiguous presence of the two women who observe them.

Too much detail divulged here about both plays would threaten to spoil the experiences of watching both. These are mysterious works but also very rooted and very real: You will get the most of out of them knowing as little as possible, but know, booking your tickets, that they are special enough to immerse yourself in.

When, inevitably, an Annie Baker play finally makes it to Broadway itself, a few blocks east, it will be fascinating to see the production she chooses to mount there—and what the audience makes of it.

John’s identity is finally explained to us, but that doesn’t offset the battery of shocks Baker leads us toward in the play’s final moments. A measure of the play’s success at that point was the gentleman who had been loudly grumbling about the play’s length, elusive wit, and strangeness was now sitting with his head in his hands, body leaning forward, utterly rapt.

When it was over, he and we collectively exhaled. Baker had released us from three-plus hours of exquisite, commanding tension. Far from wanting the end to come in both plays, you’d be happy enough for another three hours in all of the characters’ company—as puzzling, funny, pithy, and disturbing as The Flick and John are.

And this encapsulates Baker’s final success. She shows humanity in all its shades, and so maybe we are sitting so rapt watching The Flick and John because—whether using a rundown movie theater or slightly sinister guesthouse—Baker, as all great playwrights do, is holding a mirror up to us all.