Theater: Countless Questions

A.C.T.’s ‘John’ full of problems

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‘John,’ now playing at San Francisco’s A.C.T., reflects a ‘postmodern’ aesthetic that rejects realistic content in favor of a fragmented universe. Photo by Kevin Berne.

By Charles Brousse

Readers who attend Marin Theatre Company (MTC)’s production of peerless (reviewed in last week’s column), or A.C.T.’s  John (this week’s subject) may wonder what has happened to American playwriting lately. For most of us, live theater was a place where—in Mark Twain’s words—we went to enjoy “a good story, well told.” More and more these days, however, people tell me that they exit from a show by a “hot young writer,” a winner of countless prizes and praised by critics, feeling confused about what they’ve seen and whether they wasted precious time and money on the experience.

My explanation for why this has occurred will have to wait for a time when a gap in the schedule offers column space. What I can say here is that peerless and John are perfect examples of the trend. Although the authors involved may not consciously be aware of it, both plays reflect a “postmodern” aesthetic prevalent in all of the arts, visual and performance, that rejects realistic content in favor of a universe that is fragmented, laden with paradoxes and mired in chaos that even the artists themselves can’t penetrate.

In my review of peerless I wrote that a reading of Jiehae Park’s script convinced me that MTC’s production didn’t do it justice. In John’s case, the opposite is true: While it is constantly undermined by the unexplained lacunae in Annie Baker’s script, Ken Rus Schmoll’s solid direction and the acting ensemble’s overall excellence almost (but not quite) succeed in making lemonade out of sour lemons.

The problems are many. To begin with, there’s the play’s length. Close to three hours divided into three acts is far too long to trace this rather cliched account of a young couple’s doomed relationship. Twenty-somethings Jenny (Stacey Yen) and boyfriend Elias (Joe Paulik) arrive late one stormy November night at a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania bed and breakfast run by an eccentric woman named Mertis (a nice turn by Georgia Engel). Their announced purpose is to allow Elias to visit the nearby Civil War battlefield, but it’s clear from the beginning that they aren’t getting along—he’s a control freak, and she’s a serial liar—so clear, in fact, that soon I began to wish I could reach for a fast forward button that would allow me to skip the inevitable carnage.

Alas, nothing like that was available and gradually it dawned on me that one of the main reasons for the play’s unnecessary length was that Baker’s fondness for the fragmentation and chaos associated with postmodernism took her (and me) off on so many unproductive paths. Take, for example, Mertis’ blind friend Genevieve. As vividly portrayed by Ann McDonough, she’s an ominous presence who seems to have clairvoyant powers early in the play, but then disappears—literally—when she hides in a shadow while Jenny and Elias engage in their most explosive encounter. She’s there, hearing the angry voices, but doesn’t involve herself in the aftermath.

Then, we have the question of the B & B’s upstairs rooms. Why is the choice of which one will be occupied by the couple so important? What is the symbolism of Mertis marking the passage of time by moving the hands on a grandfather clock? Why does she trudge back and forth along the stage apron pulling a bedraggled red curtain by hand at the beginning, end and between acts? Why is she writing a daily journal in an obscure language (or maybe gibberish)? Is there really a sick husband (who we never see or hear) behind the French doors that lead to her apartment? What does it signify that she has a doll among her multitudinous tchotchkes, a replica of which Jenny also owned as a little girl? Oh, and I almost forgot the player piano in the salon that twice interrupts the proceedings with a happy ragtime tune—what’s that about?

False leads all, and there are many more. One could explain some as director’s choices, except that Baker’s script prescribes them down to the last detail—an indication that the confusion is deliberate. Once I reached that conclusion, I stopped looking for answers.

NOW PLAYING: John runs through April 23 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco; 415/749-2228; act-sf.org.

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