Ryan Ruff Smith
Add to that list a benignly haunted bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Baker’s latest play, John, is at once her subtlest and strangest, her most mysterious and most masterful, her riskiest and most self-assured—and I haven’t even gotten to see it. It ran for just six weeks last summer at the Signature Theatre in New York, but it’s out now in a handsome trade paperback from TCG, and the work easily justifies its new incarnation in book form. To be sure, Baker writes for the stage, and on some level, reading a play is always an incomplete experience. But not many people get to the theater, and John is deserving of a much wider audience.
The play concerns a young couple, Elias Schreiber-Hoffman (“twenty-nine, glasses”) and Jenny Chung (“thirty-one, no glasses”), who stop off in Gettysburg on their way home to Brooklyn from Jenny’s parents’ house in Ohio. Elias was a Civil War buff as a kid, and he’s eager to see the battlefields. Jenny is in the throes of particularly savage menstrual cramps and is hardly able to leave the couch. Things for them, we sense and then know, are not going well. A few weeks ago, Elias discovered that Jenny had been unfaithful, and they almost broke up. (“I guess we’re um . . . we’re trying to um . . . heal?”)
The proprietor of the B&B is Mertis Katherine Graven (“seventy-two, no glasses”), whose eccentricities range from the expected (a small army of tchotchkes, hyper-regional cooking) to the bizarre (self-identification as a Neoplatonist, a diet involving daily injections of pregnancy hormones) to the Brechtian (the stage directions indicate that she manually resets the grandfather clock and changes the music to signal each scene change, and that she opens and closes “an old-school red velvet curtain” between the acts). Mertis is often visited by her friend Genevieve Marduk (“eighty-five, blind”), who seems to share some of Mertis’s new-age leanings, and who was once convinced that she was possessed by the spirit of her ex-husband, John. “Oh. That’s funny,” Jenny says. “I . . . know someone named John.” “Everyone knows someone named John,” Genevieve tells her.
In The Flick, an invisible movie screen constituted the fourth wall between the audience and the stage. The set consisted of rows of empty movie theater seats, mirroring the space in which we, the audience, were sitting. John also mirrors the audience back to itself, in a way that is even more subtle and even more uncanny—through the presence of thousands of watchful miniature objects, which adorn the parlor of the bed and breakfast: gnomes, trolls, porcelain angels, and, most eerily for Jenny, the American Girl doll Samantha, the same doll that tormented her as a child with projected reproaches. In fact, Jenny’s childish animism is still very much alive, and when Elias looks under Samantha’s skirt, she begs him to stop, saying, “She’ll never forgive you!” As the play unfolds, we slowly come to realize that every character has carried from childhood the sense of being watched, of having a Watcher. Hence the epigraph from Heinrich von Kleist’s “On the Marionette Theatre,” which reads, in part, “Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.” The play puts equal weight on both possibilities. It’s as god-haunted as it is doll-haunted.
That passage from von Kleist is also cited in Barbara Johnson’s book Persons and Things, a disquisition that also touches upon toys, dolls, and statues. I have a hunch that Baker read Johnson’s book before composing John; if not, their correspondence is a cosmic coincidence that would impress Mertis and Genevieve. In the play’s final scene, Jenny, recalcitrant, stands frozen still as Elias comes up and hugs her. “You’re like a statue,” he says. Then he carries her over to the couch and begins to tell her a story. (Jenny is always asking him to do this—another childish quirk.) The story is of a genre familiar to Johnson: a female statue brought to life by an ardent human admirer. And this is where Baker’s project dovetails with Johnson’s, who writes in the prologue to Persons and Things that she has “realized that the problem is not, as it seems, a desire to treat things as persons, but a difficulty in being sure that we treat persons as persons.”
Elias never finishes his story. Jenny’s cell phone starts dinging with text messages, something that has been happening more and more frequently throughout their stay. She claims it’s her sister. He asks to see the phone. Haltingly, she refuses, and an ugly fight ensues, which ends with Jenny upstairs packing and Elias alone in the living room with her phone, now locked. Mertis, startled by the noise, comes out into the living room and discovers that Genevieve has been sitting there in the dark the whole time. (The fact that she is blind only makes all the more uncanny her role here as a Watcher.) Suddenly, Mertis realizes that she has forgotten to light her Swedish angel chimes, which she always does at the end of November. She lights some candles beneath the chimes, and “The angels begin to fly around in circles and chime. It’s pretty magical.”
The play’s flat, understated last line, delivered by Mertis, answers matter-of-factly its central dramatic question (has Jenny still been texting John?), but by the time we get there, it no longer feels like the question—because of the chimes, because of the lengthy pause in the action, and because of an unexpectedly romantic monologue delivered by Mertis. We, like the characters, have found ourselves transported.
This is excellent theater, even on the page. And in many ways, Baker excels in this format. She’s a delightful and exacting writer, and not a word here is wasted—even the stage directions and the character and scene descriptions are brimming with personality and wit. To my mind, Baker is not only our best young playwright but the best American writer under forty. I hope a production of John is soon mounted again, but even if it isn’t, this is work that deserves to be celebrated. It’s a wonderful book.
Ryan Ruff Smith’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared recently in Ploughshares, Subtropics, and New Ohio Review.