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Signature Theatre Presents "John" at The Pershing Square Signature Center
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Signature Theatre Presents "John" at The Pershing Square Signature Center

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Signature Theatre Presents:

By Annie Baker
Directed by Sam Gold

Signature Theatre
(Signature Theatre Website)
James Houghton, Founding Artistic Director
Erika Mallin, Exec. Director
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
(212) 244-PLAY (7529)

Christopher Abbott, Hong Chau
Georgia Engel, Lois Smith

Set Design: Mimi Lien
Costume Design: Asta Bennie Hostetter
Lighting Design: Mark Barton
Sound Design: Bray Poor
Production Stage Manager: Amanda Michaels
Casting: Telsey + Company/William Cantler, CSA
Press Representative: Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Assoc. Artistic Director: Beth Whitaker
General Manager: Gilbert Medina
Director of Marketing/Audience Services: David Hatkoff
Director of Production: Paul Ziemer

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
August 29, 2015 Matinee

A young couple from New York, at the end of a Thanksgiving weekend, has made an online reservation at an old, dusty Bed & Breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, so Elias Schreiber-Hoffman and his girlfriend, Jenny Chung, can explore the Civil War history of the area and spend some quality time together, after visiting with Midwest relatives. Elias (Christopher Abbott) is bitter about his lifetime of family fights, and he sees in his quiet-spoken girlfriend, Jenny (Hong Chau), a peaceful oasis, that is, if only he could trust her. Jenny is secretive, self-involved, and torn. Elias is honest, self-involved, and torn. So there’s work to be done, and romance could cure their mutual malaise. The middle-aged owner of the B&B, Mertis Katherine Graven (Georgia Engel), who walks with a limp and a smile, is oh so eager to please, and first greets her guests with homemade fudge. Coming, going, sitting, soliloquizing, and hiding in the dark is Genevieve Marduk (Lois Smith), Mertis’ best friend, who’s legally blind, with dark glasses, an expandable walking stick, and a blunt bouquet of intriguing memories, including a story about how she became “crazy”, because of a man named John. (Unfortunately, before Genevieve arrived in front of the closed curtain, at the end of Act II, house lights had turned on and theater doors had opened. Thus, a few, including this writer, hustled to the lobby café, to avoid the long intermission line, and we missed Genevieve’s surprise, 5-minute monologue. The house manager was kind to fill me in, before Act III.)

Mertis’ B&B has two stage spaces, “Paris”, the bistro eating area, with metal tables and chairs, covered with flowery cloths and lace, surrounded by tiny, porcelain Eiffel Towers, angels, a print of a Parisian street scene, a fireplace, a row of old stuffed bears, and a table with cereals and breakfast trinkets. The dark, living room space has a tall Christmas tree, with lights that shine, go dark, or flicker, a player piano that suddenly plays itself on no notice, a stairway to a few upstairs guest rooms, named for Civil War celebrities, like The Chamberlain Room (Elias and Jenny’s room) and The Jackson Room (which Mertis says is “temperamental”), flowery, chintz-covered sofa and chair, maple coffee table, tiny-lighted Christmas greens hugging the stairway, a grandfather clock, that Mertis winds herself, to change day to night and back, a dark curtained, French door, a dark curtained window, worn cushions, a flowery, full rug, knick-knacks galore, and porcelain dolls that evoke eerie mystery and black magic. The home was originally a Civil War hospital for surgery, and much talk in this three-hour, 15-minute, two-intermission play revolves around home-spun “scary” stories, that never become scary.

This play, too never officially becomes scary, but its characters add their own unsettling revelations. There’s even an offstage mystery character, Mertis’ “ill” husband, with whom she claimed she had dinner. Nobody hears or sees him, although Genevieve hears “something” shuffling. One might wonder if the husband was actually in an urn, or a framed photograph, because Mertis never checked on him all weekend. Genevieve spoke at length about being controlled and obsessed with John, even after she was rid of his nearness. Mertis spoke of a sad relationship, in generalities, and finding strength in her diary, in encyclopedic memorization exercises (like rattling off a long list of nouns that denote groups of bird species). Mertis read to her guests (and us) from her diary, with literary artistry, about sunrises and sunsets, but when another character picked up the diary, gibberish (or an unknown language or encryption) was heard. Elias had pent up anger issues and almost set a doll on fire. And, Jenny, the quiet one, was the scariest, like Mertis’ (and Jenny’s former) Samantha doll, with Jenny’s cell messages pinging from the one offstage character, that would destroy Elias’ fragile romantic retreat. The Civil War exploration, the big local restaurant dinner, the Chamberlain Room intimacy, and all Elias’ fondest wishes were fodder for Jenny’s willful manipulation. The happiest character here was blind Genevieve, who feared nothing. And, Mertis was not far behind, as she created her own sublime ambiance, in which to feel safe, enveloped by her books and mind games, Genevieve and Paris.

Kudos to Annie Baker, playwright, and her longtime collaborator, Sam Gold, director, for this mesmerizing matinee, kudos to Mimi Lien, Mark Barton, and Bray Poor, for this detailed, sensitive set, dim, magnetic lighting, and incandescent sound, and, kudos to Signature Theatre for presenting such a spellbinding, thoughtful play.

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at