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Perfecting the realistic (but creepy) tone in Annie Baker's new play
There's something a little… off about John, the new Annie Baker play that's now at Signature Theatre.
In many ways, it seems like a realistic show about a young couple spending a winter weekend at a Gettysburg bed and breakfast. But then there are these other things. The passing reference to an upstairs room being "unreliable." The caretaker's husband, who never emerges from the back of the house. The way the light hits a doll that's sitting on a staircase.
Watching the show, which runs through September 6, you eventually get the sense that something is happening in this place that's not quite natural, even if you can't explain what it is.
And that's the point. Though there are poetic accents in her previous plays like The Flick and Circle Mirror Transformation, Baker makes the unreal a significant element of John. Churning inside the quotidian plot about lovers trying to recover from an affair, there are suggestions about the cosmic (or perhaps magical, or perhaps sinister) forces drawing her characters together.
Capturing these layers requires a delicate tone, and director Sam Gold, who has collaborated with Baker on almost all of her plays, says mastering it has been the biggest challenge of this production.
"I'm not sure 'eeriness' or 'dread' are exactly the right words, and I'm not sure I could come up with the right words," he explains. "This play is very specific, and it evokes something where I think, 'I know where that lives,' but I can't quite articulate the word for it. So with the design team and the cast, there were a lot of conversations trying to split hairs and get this thing to feel exactly like Annie wanted it to feel."
Partly, that means honoring the script's realism, especially through design. If we don't believe this bed and breakfast, which is run by a sweet old lady named Mertis, is an actual place, then the mood will collapse.
"A lot of the stuff that is in [Mimi Lien's] set design is straight out of research," Gold says. "We went to a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg where there was a staircase with Christmas tree lights going up it and a teddy bear on every step. That made it directly into the show, and when the teddy bears are lined up on the stairs just staring at you, it feels like that is the tone of the play. It's a little ridiculous and saccharine, but it also feels like they're watching you."
On the other hand, he continues, "we also talked a lot about the occult and that there was a mysterious darkness that lurked just beyond what we were doing. Nothing on the stage should be overtly dark, but there should be crevices to the production where, if you were to explore them, it would be very dark. Like, there's a very short little door in the back of the set that Mertis comes through at the very beginnings and ends of the acts. It's a very realistic detail, but what's behind that weird little door?"
Gold, who recently won a Tony Award for directing the musical Fun Home, says that he and Baker have joked about the spooky things we can't see, like all the bodies that may be hanging on meat hooks in Mertis's private rooms. However, he doesn't want Georgia Engel, who plays Mertis, to think of her character that way. "I would never talk to her about bodies hanging from meat hooks because that's not at all what the tone is for the actor," he says.
Instead, he wants the cast to be much more matter-of-fact about whatever's going on. As he explains, "I would to talk to Georgia about, 'Well, Annie and I do believe that in the Jackson room, if you're in it on the wrong day, you might be transported to another dimension and you may never come back.' But there's a wink to it where we're not trying to have the actor play into that. That just happens to be true of this little bed and breakfast, but you're just trying to get on with your day."
Mark Blankenship is the editor-in-chief of TDF Stages.
Photos by Matthew Murphy. Top photo: Christopher Abbott and Hong Chau.