To move The Flick, Annie Baker’s four-character Pulitzer Prize-winning masterwork to off-Broadway, no fewer than twenty producers as well as four producing organizations were needed. The plays is still running, praise the Lord (and producers and audiences), and plans to stick around until at least January.
That many money-men-and-women will apparently be needed to move Baker’s equally fine four-character John from The Signature Theatre. Just in case there aren’t enough around to do the job, catch John before it closes its limited run this week – that is, if you’re a theatergoer who enjoys language, revels in eccentric characters and doesn’t mind a three-hours-and-fifteen-minute length. Take no chances and take it all in.
Every show must have a villain. For most — but not all — of John’s length, the bad guy seems to be where Baker’s play takes place: a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Julia Gibbs in Our Town says her husband loves taking trips to Civil War sites and mentions Gettysburg as a particular favorite. Dr. Gibbs might not feel as happy if he had to stay at Kitty’s B&B. Even those travelers who think they’re cool when proclaiming that they “don’t want a cookie-cutter hotel room but something with character” may well think twice — or thrice — after seeing John.
New Yorkers Elias (the perfunctory Christopher Abbott) and Jenny (the adequate Hong Chau) did their research and decided they just had to stay in The Jackson Room. When they arrive, however, Kitty tells them the room has a leak and they must take another one.
Such a situation wouldn’t matter in a cookie-cutter hotel, but here it does. So they goto The Chamberlain Room, where they had better like the level of heat they’re getting, for Kitty controls the temperature. There’s no in-room thermostat that the pair can adjust.
No one else is staying at Kitty’s, which puts an onus on Elias and Jenny. When Kitty (Georgia Engel, as scatterbrained as always) comes out with their food, they feel they must stop their intimate conversation, for they’ll easily be heard — which wouldn’t happen in a crowded hotel dining room.
Elias and Jenny had better approve of what Kitty is serving, too, for there’s not much choice of “B” in these places. And what happens if you’re hungry and you find your hostess has overslept and hasn’t even begun cooking? Kitty does one morning, and although sound designer Bray Poor denies us the rumbling of stomachs, we do get the impression Elias and Jenny are on the hungry side.
Certainly at a hotel their waitress wouldn’t sit next to them and wait to be invited into the conversation. Kitty does, for a B&B expects you to immediately bond and become friends with your host.
Give Kitty enough time and she’ll morph into a mother. After Jenny takes and finishes a cell phone call, Kitty thinks nothing of asking “Was that Elias?”
When Jenny returns after a hard day of sightseeing, Kitty doesn’t read that her guest is not in the mood for conversation. Alas, Jenny feels compelled into playing along and answering questions. Then she’s shamed into saying “And how was your day?”
At one point Kitty says she spent the previous night learning all those names for groupings of birds – and then goes on to prove it: “A bevy of doves, a quarrel of sparrows, a sedge of cranes …” And on and on!
(This does beg the question: Who decided the names for these groupings? Who determined that “a parliament” should be the tem for a collection of owls and not “a leash,” which just had to be for hawks?)
And what if you feel like fighting? Elias and Jenny get into a contretemps that they assume they’re having out of anyone’s earshot. No such luck. The eavesdropping, although outrageous, is nevertheless uproarious.
The B&B experience also means you must be congenial to the proprietress’ friend when she drops in. That’s when the small talk gets much bigger. Lois Smith is hilarious as Genevieve, who starts the second act by orating on her life and how she sees the world. She fully expects that everyone will agree with her. Trouble is, she’s genuinely crazy. And just try to get a word in edgewise.
Genevieve will be interrupted, however, not by a human being, but by a grandfather clock. Once it starts its sonorous, ominous on-the-hour sounds, everyone is quieted until it’s had its full say. Theatregoers should be grateful that the scene takes place at nine p.m., for the number of tolls would only increase in the next few hours. Baker has become as famous as Pinter for her pauses, and hers may initially try your patience, but they will train it, too. When a play’s this good, you adjust. And Pinter never found a pause as imaginative and certainly not as funny.
Just after the curtains close on Act Two and the house lights come up, out comes Genevieve to orate some more. Talking to Kitty and Jenny just weren’t enough; she has to bring us into it, and never mind if we were already on our way to the rest room. Come hell or high water in The Jackson Room, Genevieve is going to tell us how she went crazy. And although Genevieve’s rant makes us laugh — often uncontrollably – it does make us feel bad for her as she explains why she’s become what she’s become.
Although Baker sets up the B&B as a fascistic state, she does play fair and shows that a B&B’s guests can be a problem, too. Jenny reveals to Kitty and Genevieve a situation for which the acronym “TMI” is ideal. When Elias and Jenny need to reveal their discontent with each other, Kitty becomes their de facto shrink. She lends a sympathetic ear and would give each of her shoulders if both simultaneously cared to cry. Try telling your problems to the concierge at a chain hotel and see how far you get.
So let’s have some pity for Kitty, too. When you run a B&B, you never know what kind of people you’re letting into your house. There’s a point where one of Kitty’s possessions is mangled, and considering that she put it in a prominent place, we know it means a great deal to her.
It’s one of the few things we can see in Mark Barton’s purposely dim lighting; Kitty probably wants to save on her electric bill, too. Luckily we can still make out that Mimi Lien’s set is a riot of chintz and prints accented by squeaky doors and short-circuited lights. And given that we’re in Gettysburg, the milk earmarked for coffee isn’t placed in a creamer, but in a miniature cannon-on-two-wheels. It’s just one of the hundreds of tchotchkes that Kitty keeps around for atmosphere. One will figure prominently in the plot, enough to get a gasp from the audience. So will, of course, the name “John,” but that will take a while, too.
No, The American Bed and Breakfast Association won’t be a fan of John. Baker’s play may turn “cookie-cutter hotel rooms” from a pejorative into a compliment. Besides, haven’t we all had plenty of cookies made from cutters that have been quite delicious?