John shows the extraordinary beneath the ordinary

JOHN by Annie Baker (Company Theatre). At the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs (26 Berkeley). Runs to February 19. $20-$47. 416-368-3110..


JOHN by Annie Baker (Company Theatre). At the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs (26 Berkeley). Runs to February 19. $20-$47. 416-368-3110. See listing. Rating: NNNNN

The title and setting of Annie Bakers play John couldnt be more ordinary. But thats intentional. Whats hidden beneath them is extraordinary, as is Jonathan Goads production for Company Theatre.

Late one night, young New York couple Elias (Philip Riccio) and Jenny (Loretta Yu) arrive at a quaint bed and breakfast. Its run by a kindly older woman named Mertis (Nancy Beatty), whos very proud of her tchotchke-filled home, which even includes a dining area modelled on her hackneyed notion of a Paris cafe.

Elias is Jewish and Jenny Asian-American, and theyre both obviously much hipper than their host. So will this be a commentary on class, race and age in a divided America? Not quite. Turns out the B&B is in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the pair is there to visit Civil War sites but also to fight over their troubled relationship.

Mertis is more complex than she seems. For one thing, theres the sick husband she lives with who never appears. And that weather journal she keeps what language is it written in? And then theres her blind friend Genevieve (Nora McLellan), a rough-looking survivor whos currently being haunted by her ex.

All of these things add to the plays mystery. Baker has the uncanny ability to write engaging scenes that seem to be about nothing but, when placed together, suggest a lot.

The key to a play like this is establishing the right tone, and director Goad finds it, mixing straight naturalism with gentle social satire and elements of horror and suspense. Baker even uses that hoary old cliche about the haunted doll the subject of half a dozen movies in the last few years to explore big ideas about moral culpability and conscience.

The actors are superb. Beatty, seen too infrequently onstage, finds a timeless, enchanted quality to Mertis thats never self-conscious McLellan, hidden mostly behind a pair of dark glasses, is a presence even when shes not talking (and surely its not a coincidence that her characters name sounds like Jennys).

Riccio, always a compelling, intense actor, creates a complex portrait of a wounded and unhappy man. The surprise is Yu, who works mostly in film and TV but feels fully relaxed and present onstage, her character believable in all her contradictions.

Its hard to separate this production and its themes from the design. Shannon Lea Doyles intentionally cluttered set and Kevin Lamottes lighting appear alternately benign and sinister, while Michael Lairds sound design makes you feel like youre in an actual inn, eavesdropping on people arguing on another floor.

The play, like Bakers Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick, runs over three hours. And youll be engrossed by all of it.

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