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REVIEW: The story of ‘John’ unfolds at Arden Theater

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY ANDERS BACK
For Digital First Media

Take a nascent ghost story that’s short on ghosts, stir in some mystery not particularly mysterious, add a crash-burning relationship that makes little sense, then call the whole thing an exploration of character through meaningful silence and what do you have?
You might be describing one of the lesser-known Harold Pinter plays. Or you might be referring to “John,” the 2015 play by Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker, now in production at the Arden Theater in Philadelphia.
Baker is a comet passing over the New York theater scene having won multiple awards for her plays (including that Pulitzer for The Flick in 2014) in the past decade. Celebrated for her colloquial dialog, lengthy silences and naturalistic (though she dislikes the term) settings that ground, surround — and often mute — her characters, in “John” she employs a rural bed and breakfast setting to tell a story about, well, what exactly?

IF YOU GO
“John” is performed through Feb. 26 at the Arden Theater, 40 N. 2nd Street Philadelphia. For tickets call (215) 922-1122 or check https://tickets.ardentheatre.org.

This B&B is in Gettysburg — a Civil War shrine where visitor spending approaches $700 million annually, generated by people who wish to see where 51,000 soldiers became casualties in the most violent clash in our homeland’s history. Bed and breakfast places in the area are often lavish and cater to Civil War buffs and those who wish to commune with the spirits of the dead and eagerly take “ghost tours” of the town.
As the play opens the proprietor Mertis Graven happily, busily updates her latest guests Elias and Jenny on these options for fun in town. The obviously mismatched, unhappy (and improbable) New York couple try to forget their grievances while attempting to fathom the mysterious behavior of their hostess, who drops cryptic phrases while serving breakfast or aperitifs while surrounded by the biggest collection of dolls, antiques and holiday tchotchkes this side of your neighborhood Cracker Barrel gift shop.
Mertis and her unseen, ill husband are a constant presence hovering mostly just out of view like good B&B proprietors should. Mertis even updates the hands of the grandfather clock to monitor the play’s progression from dawn to dusk and draws the curtains between acts. But as Elias and Jenny try to pull their partnership back together, Mertis and her close friend Genevieve a blind recovering schizophrenic periodically pop up on the sofa or in the breakfast nook for unsettling reviews of Genevieve’s difficult marriage to a man named John leading to her subsequent crack-up. Both Elias and Jenny are drawn to the two women, who are no one’s idea of relationship coaches.
Some of these stories are funny and empathetic, others just grim. Baker clearly loves using weighted and precise turns of phrase, playing with and honing dialog.
But this is a setting where strangers are admitted into someone’s home and treated like relatives. Both banal and potentially intriguing, it demands more in plot and characterization than lovers’ spats and passing references to H.P. Lovecraft, American Girl Dolls and Scripture. The characters read or speak lines that sound more like something drawn from a playwright’s commonplace book rather than something arising naturally from the action. There’s some unease and curiosity about Mertis and this living dollhouse she’s created as much for herself as her guests, but no real sense of mystery or threat emerges.

(Left to Right) Carla Belver, Kevin Meehan and Nancy Boykin in Arden Theatre Company's production of John. Photo by Mark Garvin

(Left to Right) Carla Belver, Kevin Meehan and Nancy Boykin in Arden Theatre Company’s production of John.
Photo by Mark Garvin

Director Matthew Decker, who efficiently handled the high-speed stage traffic of Arden’s production of Gale Childs Daly’s adaptation of Great Expectations in 2014 has faithfully followed the precise, sparing and hyper realistic Baker dramatic formula with a minimum of stage business or overshadowing. The actors simply sit, stand, make out, go up and down stairs and carry on conversations whether onstage or off as if their audience was sitting on another settee enjoying Mertis’ homemade sailor’s duff or Vienna Fingers. It’s a practiced intimacy that audiences seem to love.
There are fine performances by Carla Belver, one the region’s most accomplished actresses as the intense, unflappable Genevieve, a blind prophet who pierces the heart with her stories of madness, Nancy Boykin as the buoyant and omnipresent (and self-proclaimed Neo-Platonist) host Mertis and Kevin Meehan as the troubled Elias, the only visible male in the play who is forced to navigate rough emotional waters without paddle or compass, using just his battered wits and a plate of peanut butter fudge.

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