In Review

John

2 out of 5 stars
2 out of 5 stars - 'Boohoo'
American Conservatory Theater
By Annie Baker
Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll
Website: act-sf.org
Review by

The American Conservatory Theater’s newest offering, John, is almost a ghost story. Creepy dolls, spooky stories, battlefield lore, flickering lights, and temperamental rooms all feature, but the story stays within the natural (no “super”). That’s not a bad thing: there are plenty of good shows about crumbling relationships. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker ought to be able to write one. She is brilliant and observant, with a sensitive ear for realistic dialogue. She has used these talents to write a play that is totally devoid of dramatic interest.

Silence is a powerful tool in the theater, if used sparingly.

John contains four fascinating, complex characters. Mertis (Georgia Engel) is a quirky bed-and-breakfast owner with too many tchotchkes and morbid eloquence. She gets the best lines, from her deadpan introduction of the portrait in the breakfast nook (“that’s Eugenia”) to comparing her (ex-)husbands to a woodchuck and a prehistoric fish. Her blind best friend Genevieve (Ann McDonough) has an equally outsized personality. The highlight of the show comes when she postpones intermission to deliver an exuberant, fourth-wall-breaking monologue about going clinically insane.

Elias (Joe Paulik) and Jenny (Stacey Yen) embrace in ‘John’ at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

The young couple, Elias (Joe Paulik) and Jenny (Stacey Yen), have the sort of rocky relationship it hurts to watch. Elias cruelly turns all of Jenny’s attempts to connect into aggressive confrontations. Jenny is the nice one—personable, sweet, and full of interesting facts—but, we learn, a pathological liar. From the show’s first few minutes (and at regular intervals thereafter), I found myself with my face in my palms wishing they would please just break up already.

Annie Baker and director Ken Rus Schmoll are nothing if not brave. A conversation takes place entirely offstage, heard (unfortunately not very clearly) but not seen by the audience. Characters stumble their way through sentences full of “like”s, “um”s, and false starts. Uncomfortably long pauses punctuate the dialogue. The play’s motif is being watched. There’s plenty of opportunity here for watching unimpeded by talking. Characters grimly stare at each other and at their surroundings, and we (the audience) mutely look on.

Silence is a powerful tool in the theater, if used sparingly. At the beginning of John, some of the best moments of comedy are wordless. Jenny’s abject horror as she recognizes one of Mertis’s dolls is priceless, and Mertis’s manual movement of the hands of her grandfather clock (to mark the passage of time) provokes chuckles. But the show drags on for over three hours without ever picking up the pace.

I go to the theatre for experiences that transcend the ordinary. There are many ways to achieve this: witty dialogue, heightened emotions, compact action, or simple bizarreness. John is too naturalistic in its plot and dialogue to make use of any of those tactics. It’s all very realistic—and very boring.

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  • Bill C

    I could not disagree more. I loved the play and the directing and acting were spot on. The slow pace was filled with countless moments of light humor and thought provoking insight. I’ll take that over “heightened emotions” and “witty dialogue” any day. Wit was there in abundance if this reviewer cared to look for it.

    • Ilana Walder-Biesanz

      This play has proved very polarizing among theatre-goers I know and trust! It’s not surprising — Annie Baker seems to do that. I found no wit here, but others in the audience were clearly more appreciative. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  • ChristyJ

    I loved the play and found the dramatic tension to be sustained through the entire three hours (and I went in a skeptic). It’s unconventional for sure – the whole thing works on several levels that aren’t very obvious, which I thought was one of its great pleasures. The technique, including the silences, awkward encounters, language, and just overall oddness tickles the subconscious in a really great way – I feel like it gave me a lot more space as a viewer, somehow, to get closer to the characters and whatever was happening in the undercurrent – to let go of something, maybe expectations – and I somehow didn’t feel unsatisfied when I realized a lot of those hidden things would never be revealed. The motif is being watched, but it’s much more complex than that – it’s also about being trapped by our own ideas of what we need to be for others, and then, suddenly, being free of those ideas, the implication being that that kind of freedom can actually look a lot like insanity. Just a great theater experience, for me. Also, I thought Georgia Engel, as the center of the whole thing, was fantastically good. I urge you to go back and see it again!