This is pure speculation, but I would imagine that every new playwright du jour is under extreme pressure to produce. So skimpy are the monetary rewards of the profession (except in the case of a few big, proven names) that any kind of commission must seem quite compelling. As a result, we’re often seeing plays not yet fully cooked.
Again, I can’t vouch for Annie Baker’s motivation in leaping from The Flick (which rightfully earned her the 2014 Pulitzer and has been resurrected, cast intact, at the Barrow Street Theatre) to John, the tale of a foundering 30-ish couple seeking shelter in a froufrou Gettysburg B&B. But it seems to cry out for further development.
She starts off with such a promising set-up: the innate comicality of the whole quaint-inn gestalt, especially as a site of a semi-public break-up in progress.
Mimi Lien’s set perfectly captures the hell that is tchotchke overload, and Georgia Engel plays Mertis, the proprietress, with just the right air of benighted pride (which is to say, Engel retains the tentative, people-pleasing smile and childish diction that have been her trademarks for decades). Christopher Abbott adequately conveys his character’s loutishness and veiled menace, and as his paramour, Hong Chau presents, appropriately, as an accommodating cipher.
There’s only one wild card in the cast, and that’s Lois Smith, marvelously abrasive as Mertis’ blind, boastfully ex-insane neighbor. Smith’s mid-play curtain speech – do not make the mistake of bolting at the second intermission – carries more substance and ignites more interest than all the lackadaisical action (the term is relative) that precedes and follows it.
Baker is known for testing audiences' patience, but I never found myself mentally drumming my fingers until this play, which lasts three and a quarter predominantly tedious hours. The difference is that the previous scripts – starting with 2008’s Body Awareness – feature young people at risk, one way or another, as they struggle to form their view of the world.
It is very difficult to care about the outcome of the growing rift affecting this not-so-young couple (precipitated by John, an unseen third party). I can’t help feeling there’s more to be gleaned here. I’d happily spend a long weekend in the company of the mystically inclined Mertis (perhaps donning a blindfold to block out her taste in décor) and her not entirely post-psychotic friend.