John review: a subtle but finely-honed chamber piece ★★★★★

Annie Baker's Gettysburg-set drama introduces rich, nuanced characters to the Dorfman Theatre

Anneika Rose as Jenny and Tom Mothersdale as Elias. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

Writer Annie Baker last came to the National in 2016 with her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama The Flick. Her return, transferred from a successful run in New York, is a subtle but finely-honed chamber piece that draws you into the relationships of a quartet of the most well-drawn characters you’ll see on stage. 

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Elias (Tom Mothersdale) and Jenny (Anneika Rose), are a quarrelsome young couple who arrive at a Gettysburg B&B late into the night. The homely establishment is run by Mertis, it’s sweet and genteel if albeit slightly kooky owner (Marylouise Burke). 

But every home has its eccentricities, and in Mertis’s, as Elias and Jenny can’t help but notice, it’s her dolls. A miniature army of figurines, cuddly and porcelain, angelic and eerie, adorn almost every wall and surface. The sheer number of still eyes watching every move is unsettling.

The set is meticulously detailed, and almost a character in itself: the warm and cosy period parlour with its floral prints and jukebox radio; the Parisian-themed breakfast nook; the imposing staircase which rises up its centre. But there’s an air of vague discord that runs through the decor – in the stern portrait glaring reproachfully at all below, and in the surreal animation of inanimate objects. In those tiny eyes.

Marylouise Burke as Mertis. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
Marylouise Burke as Mertis. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

As their stay unfolds, Jenny and Elias scratch away at each other, in and out of the view of Mertis and her spooky blind friend Genevieve (June Watson). 

The sense of foreboding is skilfully built. Baker is a sharp observer of people, and it shows in her characters and dialogue. Elias habitually tells Jenny what she is thinking and feeling, robbing her of her own agency. Both are guilty of ignoring signals the other is hoping they’ll pick up on. The manner in which they repeatedly push each other away with words, before timidly or passionately coming back together with gestures, is powerfully convincing. 

The smaller ingredients are what make this play such a delight. Mertis’s small joy and satisfaction in bestowing esoteric knowledge onto a willing listener; Genevieve’s perky evocation of being possessed by her dead husband.  

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This is a play about seeing and being seen. Being watched, by those real or only in the imagination, alters the way each perceives themselves and how they relate to each other. Though it runs well over three hours long, it’s utterly fascinating. It would be no surprise if with this, Annie Baker repeated her Pulitzer triumph.