Dallas — When the red velvet curtain is shoved back to reveal the expansive and exquisitely detailed set for Annie Baker’s John at Undermain Theatre, the impulse to applaud is overwhelming.
Director Bruce DuBose has clearly worked closely with set designer Robert Winn and properties designer Linda Noland to create a scene that reflects the characters’ personalities and influences the action as much as a bullring tells us we’re about to witness blood in the afternoon.
We’ve entered the world of Mertis (a beautifully maternal Elly Lindsay), the smiling, silver-haired owner of a bed-and-breakfast converted from a Civil War-era hospital on the site of Battle of Gettysburg where 50,000 men died in three days. What we see is a mash-up of Norman Rockwell’s nostalgic home-fires-burning magazine covers and a long afternoon’s worth of dusty thrift shop cabinets stuffed with ceramic tchotchkes and miniature trains and villages. Pushed deep into Undermain’s intimate basement theater, the set opens every nook and cranny and domesticates the iconic concrete columns with rose-covered wallpaper. Included in this mass menagerie is a grandfather clock hand-set nightly by the owner, a player piano with its own agenda, a big Christmas tree with unreliable lights, a model Eifel Tower for the ridiculous breakfast-in-Paris dining nook, and a wonderfully inviting overstuffed sofa, front and center, just waiting for somebody to sit down and spill his or her own traumatic childhood memories to the kindly proprietress.
In seconds, the bell rings and Jenny (a vulnerable, expressive Olivia de Guzman) and Elias (a tight-jawed, wound-up Scott Zenreich) arrive later than expected, and Mertis greets them warmly as they take in the literally hundreds of little objects, framed ancestors and endless bric-a-brac surrounding them. Jenny is repulsed by the tiny villages and imagines the oppressed people locked into them forever, like the transparent snow globes on every table. Later, after a fight with Elias and a freezing room drives her back downstairs, Jenny is spooked by a replica of the very doll she adored and feared as a little girl. Elias is less susceptible to the mesmerism of objects, and when Mertis lights a candle under the angel chimes he tells her it sounds like “rain on concrete.” It’s all in the eye and ear of the beholder, right?
As the play gets underway, so do the quarreling couple. Their bickering escalates until Elias, the history buff who brought them to this weird spot, takes off to see the local battlefields. Jenny pleads cramps and this opens the middle of the play to a long sit-down with Mertis and Genevieve (hilarious, compelling Rhonda Boutté in seer mode), her blind best friend who gets dropped off daily for a visit and a rage-fueled trip down memory lane. Genevieve’s crazy tale of her breakdown caused by her hallucinations of her awful divorced husband, John, is a bizarre set piece in itself. Drinking wine and sipping tea, Jenny recalls she once knew a man named John. “Everybody does,” says Mertis, setting up the play’s title premise. Just what sort of guy was your John?
Baker takes some chances and has some fun with this extravagant setting and two women who form a benign coven of caretakers—or cuckoos—mulling over the bull-in-a-china shop effect of most men in their world. Aside from Mertis’ brief, grisly description of knee-deep piles of amputated arms and legs outside the hospital following the big battle, Gettysburg itself doesn’t figure much in the play. When the plot is stirred, Lindsay’s enigmatic Mertis particularly turns out to have more going on than the husband who never appears.
De Guzman’s Jenny is a delight to watch. Making amends after a fight, shivering with cold and fear, or warming up to the odd style of an older generation of women, her eyes grow large and her face says as much or more than her words. Zenreich, in a scruffy beard and black-framed glasses, is convincing as a conflicted man trying to come to grips with his past, and how the men around him have skewed his idea of loving.
Baker, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning and lengthy play The Flick was seen at Undermain a few years ago, and whose The Aliens has been done by several local theaters, has emerged as one of America’s great playwriting voices. John runs two hours and 45 minutes, including two intermissions, and will leave you with a new respect for the old women in your neighborhood—as well as the urge to empty all the curio cabinets in your house.