In the end, Annie Baker’s play, "John," is a shaggy dog story. But before we arrive at its deliberately unsubtle punch line, we reside with its characters in real time. Three hours and fifteen minutes of real time.
Baker’s study of our search for love is slow and deliberate. It meanders, wandering off into shadowy corners, threatening to become a ghost story, sometimes pretending to be a marital farce. This play’s sluggishness is its very point. The disappointment I found at a recent Friday night performance of this Stray Cat Theatre production was not with the playwright, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play The Flick. Nor with the play, which didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
My disappointment was with the audience. I joined them in the lobby between each of John’s three acts, and listened while they muttered to one another. "Why wasn’t anything much happening?" they needed to know. "Was the house haunted?" they whined. "Let’s go back in," I heard someone say to a companion. "Maybe something will happen in the next act."
It did, eventually. Sort of. The real pleasure of "John" is in watching what Baker and director Ron May do with a story that is intentionally taking its time telling us things we already know about the loneliness of life. Mertis, the proprietor of the possibly haunted bed-and-breakfast, is hosting a young couple whose relationship is on the rocks. As the story of this couple slowly — and I do mean slowly — unfolds, we are distracted by possibilities, just as we are in real life.
Watching "John" is not unlike eavesdropping on a very long, fascinating conversation in a restaurant, while eating the delicious meal set before you.
Director May finesses the slow, steady movement of his small cast. Michelle Chin and Will Hightower offer instinctive and casual performances as the young couple. Shari Watts is a charismatic and eccentric hostess; she might have skipped away with the play were it not for the titanic presence of Debra Lyman, who speaks, both to us and the characters in the play, about how easily madness comes. She, and the play itself, offer that rarest of luxuries: the opportunity to consider how trivialities and diversions inform, and sometimes, destroy, our lives.