Reginald Theatre, September 21
Only one of this play’s four men appears on stage. Two of the others, both called John, haunt the minds of Jenny, Elias and Genevieve. Mertis, alone, has a John-free psyche, and hers is partly occupied by George, a husband too sick to make an entrance. So thick are the stratospheres of psychosis, neurosis, stupefaction and paranormality in Annie Baker’s play that we wonder if George is Mertis’s invention – until she showers us with such an ecstatic account of their meeting as seems to put the matter beyond doubt.
Baker’s last play, The Flick (also produced by Outhouse Theatre), applied Beckettian experiments with pauses and silences to naturalism. John takes that a step further, so the rests in her 200-minute musical score of words move beyond tension and diffusion into grotesqueness. In fact Genevieve, an elderly blind woman of no fixed relation to reality, who, if she is not asleep by 9.30pm, slides into a deep despair, could have groped her way into this straight out of a Beckett short. Similarly Elias – an ornithophobia-suffering drummer and Civil War buff, who sees insect faces on his girlfriends, yet wonders why he’s losing Jenny – could have fallen on set through a plot hole in a Woody Allen film.
Brecht also has a hand on the tiller. Mertis defines each act by opening and closing red plush curtains, and each scene by moving the hands on a grandfather clock, and Genevieve addresses us directly (before we “take a little break and go to the bathroom”) with the seven stages of her madness (including scorpions and 200 Benedictine monks invading her brain).
But as wide as Baker casts her net, the play is unmistakably hers: the next instalment in her fascination with miscommunication. She has Jenny and Elias often lost for words, whether through confusion, shyness, duplicity or anger. Yet when her two finest creations, Mertis and Genevieve don’t speak, they are at peace with each other and with a cosmos they’ve accepted as unreliable at best, temperamental at worst.
Mertis, “a tiny bit of a mind-reader”, runs a b&b adjacent to the site of the Civil War-defining battle of Gettysburg; one crammed with dolls, lamps, porcelain and collectables, thanks to designer Jeremy Allen’s immersive, endlessly intricate take on Baker’s specifications. Belinda Giblin makes Mertis’s beauty of spirit so tangible that, were the lights to fail, you suspect she would still illuminate the stage with the glow of a character who loves life so much as to forgive its vagaries. Maggie Blinco lets her startling, gravel-voiced Genevieve be gently loopy without a trace of embroidery, while being Mertis-warm and as steadfast as an Easter Island Moai.
Where the two older women have grown at ease in their own skins, Elias and Jenny are self-obsessed, burdened by yearning and so spectacularly ill-suited that it is little wonder their relationship’s on the rocks. John James Bell nicely catches Elias’s neuroses, although neither he nor director Craig Baldwin have solved Baker’s conundrum of making the character charmless, so we don’t care sufficiently whether Jenny cuckolds him. Shuang Hu’s Jenny is the least successful performance. She routinely failed to project, couldn’t excavate sufficient desperation at the emotional climax, and, when in company with the watertight Giblin and Blinco, she let the seams in her acting show. But this being the TV actor’s professional stage debut, she shows sufficient flair to be able to rise nearer Giblin and Blinco’s rarefied zone during the season.
Until October 12.