BWW Review: JOHN Is A Dark Comedic Gem

JOHN, a new play by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Annie Baker, is now receiving a Southwest Premiere production at Hyde Park Theatre, under the direction of Ken Webster. The production is so exceptional on so many multiple levels that I am likely to wear out my thesaurus. This is not the first play by Baker that Hyde Park Theatre has produced. Earlier this season, they presented The Flick, and they have, in the past, produced Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens and Body Awareness. Webster clearly has an affinity for her work and Austin is all the richer for it.

Elias (Zac Thomas) and Jenny (Catherine Grady) are a young couple whose relationship is clearly not in the best of shapes. They have arranged a getaway at a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. While Elias wants to explore the rich local history, Jenny is more interested in reconnecting with the mistrustful Elias. They have chosen to stay at Mertis Katherine's (Katherine Catmull) bed-and-breakfast, a cozy home laden with figurines, dolls, and Civil War kitsch. Mertis appears to be a sweet, if not slightly daft, host who tells ghost stories, offers Vienna finger cookies, fudge and the occasional odd Civil War dessert while recording the sunsets in her journal in slightly sinister prose. Elias and Jenny fight almost constantly and are most certainly savagely hurtful to each other. Mertis' blind and elderly friend, Genevieve (Lana Dietrich), is a frequent visitor who claims she is haunted by the spirit of her abusive ex-husband, John. Interestingly enough, John is also the name of Jenny's old boyfriend who arouses Elias's suspicions.

Along the way, the topics of childhood trauma, Sanskrit incantations that make pianos play of their own accord, lists of the names for groups of birds, monsters, mistrust, infidelity, and one pissed off American Girl doll, are just a few of the things that come up during this holiday weekend.

Annie Baker's play is at once gentle, atmospheric, and eerie... as well as being an absolutely hilarious black comedy. JOHN explores the themes of loneliness, communication, and whether inanimate objects have souls. There are multiple subjects that are brought up and never resolved or, in some cases, even brought up again. The amazing thing about JOHN is that the script is so rich that it doesn't matter.

Ken Webster, as stated earlier, has an obvious feel for the work of Baker and it shows in this production. The pacing and staging are terrific, which is important as the show runs two and a half hours. It never for a moment feels too long. I understand the original production ran over three hours. Baker uses pauses and silences for dramatic effect and Webster clearly knows how to trim those for a smaller house without damaging the effect. I also find it interesting in the era of the ninety minute no intermission play that Baker chose the old three act play format, a form rarely seen today. It fits perfectly with the subject matter and after this play, I am a big fan of her work. Her marriage of old fashion format with contemporary subject matter is a breath of fresh theatrical air.

The set, by Mark Pickell, is a stunner. It is one of the best interior design pieces I have seen in several years. Also, kudos to Indigo Rael, who did an amazing job with the ton of props on the stage. Don Day's lighting design was also wonderfully moody.

The cast here is exceptional. Katherine Catmull is deliciously pixilated as Mertis, a gentle soul whose eyes occasionally give a flashing indication that crazy lives here. Zac Thomas is a study in passive aggressive pain and, as unlikable as the character is, we still feel bad for him. Catherine Grady delivers a tightly wound Jenny who is the soul of hidden secrets...a conniving cypher of a woman. Lana Dietrich, as Genevieve, is absolutely hilarious. Her way with a twisted tale is delicious and her facial expressions demand that, when she is on stage, attention must be paid. She has a wonderful fourth wall breaking moment at the end of Act Two that I don't want to spoil for you, but, be on the lookout.

JOHN is a wonderful new play, being done with class, style and expertise at Hyde Park Theatre. This is a play about what you know versus what you think you know, what you see versus what you think you see. In all, it is a terrific ride that you will be glad you took. You should make reservations now, because word of mouth will sell this whole run out. This is one not to miss!

JOHN by Annie Baker
Running Time: Approximately Two and a Half Hours, including two intermissions

JOHN, produced by Hyde Park Theatre, (511 West 43rd Street, Austin, TX, 78751).

Thursdays-Saturdays, March 02 - April 01, 2017

8:00 PM on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.Thursdays are Pay What You Can Nights at the door. For the first four weeks (March 2 - 25), Friday tickets are $22 and Saturday tickets are $24. For the final weekend (March 30 - April 1), Friday tickets are $24 and Saturday tickets are $26.
Tickets are $2 off for students, seniors, military, and Austin Creative Alliance members.

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From This Author Frank Benge