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'John' review: Annie Baker's scarier side

From left, Georgia Engel as Mertis Katherine Graven,

From left, Georgia Engel as Mertis Katherine Graven, Christopher Abbott as Elias Schreiber-Hoffman & Lois Smith as Genevieve Marduk in Signature Theatre's "John," a new by Annie Baker; directed by Sam Gold. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

BOTTOM LINE

Weird, scary, slow-motion play by Annie Baker.

Slow down your metabolism. We're in current Annie Baker territory. "The Flick," which won last year's Pulitzer, asked us to hang out for three hours with people working at a dying movie theater. And nobody talked much.

Now we have "John," which runs a bit more than three hours, with at least as many long pauses and painfully quiet stretches as "Flick." Unlike that one, which drove me a little crazy in a not-good way, "John," which kicks off Baker's yearlong residency at the invaluable Signature Theatre, is a break from the hyper-natural style that has created such wonderful work as "Circle Mirror Transformation" and "Body Awareness."

This one is weirder, nuttier, scarier than any Baker play I've seen. It is positively gothic -- mysteries within mysteries, ghost stories on top of ghost stories -- without losing Baker's power to zoom in on the peculiarities in the oblique and blunt ways of real people. A young couple stops at a B&B in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the way home to New York after spending Thanksgiving with her Ohio family. He (Christopher Abbott) was obsessed with Civil War battles as a kid. She (Hong Chau) is spooked to find the froufrou-laden place has the same doll that used to scare her when she was a child. The relationship is not going well; she has menstrual cramps and there's a secret about a guy named John.

Then there is the owner of the place, Mertis, gorgeously portrayed by Georgia Engel with a guileless smile, a chirpy sweetness and, perhaps, an unseen husband dying behind the double doors of the meticulously overdecorated, cozy inn (designed by Mimi Lien). She controls the time by turning the hands on the grandfather clock, and writes florid descriptions of sunsets in her journal. She also cares for a neighbor, a blind woman (the terrific Lois Smith) with a clearheaded sense of her madness. Also, Mertis is in control of drawing the drapes, which means she decides when we'll be allowed to watch.

The hypnotic, if never actually conclusive experience, is directed by Sam Gold, who just won a Tony for his impeccably sensitive staging of "Fun Home." This is Gold's sixth Baker play, and the two obviously understand the importance of atmosphere in the terrors and passions of these oddly recognizable people. "Tell me a scary story," the young woman urges her boyfriend, though that's the last thing I would want in such a situation. Baker does not merely tell a scary story. She shows them, piling up like ghosts of amputated limbs from the war wounded, and makes them riveting, unpredictable, altogether human theater.


WHERE Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.

INFO $25; 212-244-7529; signaturetheatre.org

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