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John ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 12, 2018 

We are waiting.  For an answer.  Three and a half hours including two intermissions later with a slowly dwindling audience after the first two acts.  Ah well, it is a weekday night.  And though given the title of the play we have a fairly good guess John will be involved, we are still waiting for an explanation as to why we have slogged through the sucking sound of a surfeit of red herrings. All clues lead to nowhere.  The only explanation I can deduce is that this is some sort of exercise in existentialism.  There is no note in the program from the award-winning playwright Annie Baker and nothing from director Joe Calarco either, so we can only speculate.

Nancy Robinette, Anna Moon and Jonathan Feuer in John at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

One reason you may want to sit through this mystery, is the superb acting by Nancy Robinette and Ilona Dulaski.  They are stellar!  Two veteran actresses of note who, given the puzzling plot, still manage to keep us curious enough to await the denouement.  Hint: It’s a single word at the close of the play.

Robinette as Mertis, aka Kitty, is the off-kilter proprietress of a Bed & Breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Her blind, mentally deranged friend, Genevieve (Dulaski), imagines noises in the house.  The duo have latched onto mysticism for reasons not made clear.  Perhaps to explain why the lights flicker and the electricity frequently fails or why Kitty’s husband never appears.  “He’s not well.”  But we discover he was working on the historic home’s electrical system.  Is this a clue? To what? Credit lighting designer Andrew Cissna for the blackouts and the plethora of antique lamps.  Are we spooked?  It’s a stretch to be frightened when there’s no murder.

Anna Moon and Jonathan Feuer in John. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Certainly the creepiest part is Paige Hathaway’s set design chockfull of dozens of dolls, tchotchkes (a huge collection of china cats!!!), and an abundance of Christmas décor.  One of the dolls, perched atop a player piano, is the target of attention from Jenny (Anna Moon) – one half of the couple that is staying at the B&B.  Jenny had the same American Girl doll and is overwhelmed with guilt that as an adult she has relegated the doll to a box in her mother’s attic.  She shares with Kitty an obsessive attachment to objects and the imparting of human emotions to them.  Her passive-aggressive, jealous boyfriend Elias (Jonathan Feuer) is coming off anti-depressants and is in meltdown mode.  There are ferocious fights that result in them sleeping in separate rooms.

But back to the red herrings.  Kitty frequently changes the time on a grandfather clock and writes down her daily reflections in an unknown language.  At one point the lights go out in the theater and we hear a chuckle.  Who or what?  Kitty tells Elias not to ask about a portrait of a woman.  This is never resolved.  Kitty tells the couple she doesn’t drink.  She chugs a glass of wine.  Elias visits the Gettysburg battlefields and claims he has taken a photo that has a ghostly image.  Also, he hates B&Bs, “The tragedy of B&Bs is to be homey and cute and filled with tchotchkes.”  Why are they staying at one?  They insult the others’ cultural backgrounds – he’s Jewish, she’s Asian. There’s a reference to the house being a former Civil War hospital – arms and legs were tossed out the windows.  No ghosts arrive.  Genevieve is fixated on the husband she abandoned.  This never comes up again, though a lot of dialogue is spent on how he invaded her thoughts for years.  His name was John.  Elias was kissed by a man when he was a child.  We never learn if any of this is relevant.

Nancy Robinette, Jonathan Feuer and Ilona Dulaski in John. Photo by Margot Schulman.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away.  There are plenty more contrivances that never add up.  If this is meant to be like Get Out, this year’s Oscar-nominated horror film, they lost this reviewer amid the smokescreens in a B&B in Gettysburg.

With Costume Design by Debra Kim Sivigny and Sound Design by Kenny Neal.

Through April 29th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

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