Bostonian playwright Annie Baker's three hours plus long John is a strange, difficult, somewhat discomfiting, yet very alluring, experience. Part Southern Gothic, part magic realism, and part relationship drama, with a side helping of body horror and just a touch of the comedy of manners in the mix.
If that sounds confusing, or even confused, it's anything but. The lengthy stage time, 'indulgent' I heard a fellow patron tell his date in hushed tones, allows ample space for character development, it permits several different themes to be explored, and if nothing of great import happens until nearly two hours in that just makes the punch to the solar plexus all the more powerful, and discombobulating, when it's finally, and unexpectedly, delivered.
The plot concerns Jewish drummer/computer programmer Elias (Tom Mothersdale) and his partner Jenny (Anneika Rose) checking in to an antebellum guest house in Gettysburg, Pennsylavnia between Thanksgiving and Christmas on their way back to New York so that Elias can indulge his passion for all things American Civil War related:- ghost walks, tours of nearby battlefields etc;
The guest house is run by creakily bodied but sharp minded Mertis (Marylouise Burke) and is decorated in a fashion that would be sneered at by the Farrow and Ball generation. The breakfast area and coffee lounge has been quaintly nicknamed Paris, there's a player piano that has a tendency to go off at the slightest provocation, and there are knick-knacks and whimsies aplenty. But most of all there are dolls, dolls, and more dolls. Almost every available surface or ledge is populated with the dead eyed children's toys.
One doll, sat 'pretty' on a rocking chair, particularly unnerves Jenny as it reminds her of her own doll, Samantha, that she'd grown up in a love/hate relationship with in Columbus, Ohio. Samantha had had such an uncanny, and unsettling, effect on Jenny that she'd been consigned to the basement for decades. Was her doppelganger here to seek revenge? In the dead of winter, when it gets dark by 5pm, in a remote house with a strange lady (Mertis) and her even more peculiar friend (Genevieve) anything seems possible.
Genevieve (June Watson) is as direct as Mertis is conciliatory. They've obviously been friends for aeons and as Genevieve drinks red wine, talks of her husband, John, and tells how, at the age of fifty-seven, she was suddenly struck blind and had no regrets about it, Mertis, and Jenny (who by now has tired of accompanying Elias on his Civil War history treks) listen intently. Genevieve certainly knows how to capture an audience, both the one on stage and the actual one. On one occasion she breaks the fourth wall with a hilarious, terrifying, monologue about her life, her philosophy, and the 20,000 Benedictine monks she once imagined marching through her empty head.
Are these fantastic visions inspired by Mertis reading Genevieve H P Lovecraft's The Call of Ctulhu by candlelight? Perhaps by the stories about how the house had been used as a hospital during the Civil War and how at one time so many arms and legs were amputated and piled up outside you couldn't see out of the windows.
I was always gripped by this play and on at least two occasions I was chilled to the degree that I felt a shiver down my spine. I never found it indulgent. As with Nuri Bilge Ceylan's wonderful films (Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and Winter Sleep particularly) I felt the lengthy character development a vital part of the experience. Often we start off down a road that may not lead to a destination in the plot as such but will throw up a different, as yet unrevealed, trait of one of the four characters. The rule of Chekhov's gun may not have been abandoned completely but has been twisted and teased into something entirely new. MacGuffins-a-plenty cropped up throughout the story, more than you would think acceptable, but none of them derailed the plot and all were utilised to gently propel it forwards.
As we wondered, and pondered, potential supernatural ephemera the very real stuff of human relationships was put under a microscope and scrutinised. From the minor irritations of spending a life together (slurping one's breakfast, failing to share each other's hobbies) to bigger problems like trust issues, infidelity, and assuming your chosen partner is metamorphosising into an arthropod during sex.
Annie Baker has written, and James Macdonald directed, a fantastic, engrossing, and thoughtful play. In Burke, Watson, Rose, and Mothersdale they have found four actors who manage to bring it to life with, sometimes, a light touch that belies the seriousness of the subject, and, on other occasions (as if nodding to Milan Kundera's most famous work), a heavy touch that belies the lightness of the subject. Kafkaesque and Pinterseque are two of the most clichéd adjectives employed in all theatre criticism but here they've been well earned. The headlights of a car parking up outside the guest house light up the side wall as quietly, but eerily, as this play seeps into our conscience.
But the spooky dolls, the haunted houses, the ten foot high piles of amputated limbs of Unionist soldiers, the twenty thousand Benedictine monks marching through the skull of a blind lady who gave up on any pretence to conformity some decades ago - none of them are the real horror.
The real horror lies in the way we treat those that love and care for us the most, and in the way that those who love and care for us the most treat us in return. The real horror lies in the gap between thought and expression (given life by Annie Baker's exquisite use of pauses) that can, without us even realising, widen to reveal a yawning, possibly unbreachable, chasm. The real horror isn't in the supernatural but in the very natural and this play deals skilfully in the power of suggestion that threads those two disparate, but interdependent, states together.
It's said that one of the cruellest ironies of our existence is that a life that can only be understood backwards has to be lived forwards. In that respect Annie Baker's John was much like life itself. I left the Dorfman Theatre (as part of the brutalist National Theatre a highly suitable home for such an experience) startled, intrigued, saddened, and excited all at the same time. I came away with so many conflicting emotions that a part of me felt the need to go back to the play, again and again, to try to make sense of it all.
Come with me next time and let's share something, experience a moment (or even three hours), together that we can never truly comprehend at the same level as each other. For the pain of never truly knowing what another human being is thinking is, paradoxically enough, something each and every one of us can share.