Annie Baker’s new play, “John,” is all dolled up for a ghost story. A young couple arrives at a bed & breakfast in Gettysburg, Penn., run by an eccentric old dear with a creepy doll collection. Her spooky house could be haunted by Civil War dead and the dolls might be possessed by spirits — or not. In any event, it’s a great setting for the scary story that the Pulitzer-winning writer promises to tell and we long to hear. But as one would-be storyteller sheepishly admits, “I can only do build-up to scary, not scary itself.” Sadly, that’s the problem here.
The Irene Diamond Stage is the mainstage of the Signature Theater’s midtown complex, and set designer Mimi Lien has dressed this sweet space with obsessive care and obvious affection for B&B’s both known and imagined. This one is a big old Victorian house with a beautiful central staircase entwined with white Christmas lights and lined with dead-eyed dolls and stuffed animals.
Tucked away on one side of the staircase is a Parisian-themed breakfast nook with fussy little cafe tables and a cozy fireplace. The rest of the space is given over to a living room fitted with a comfortable sofa and overstuffed chairs, all covered in old-fashioned floral prints. A large Christmas tree stands by the front door to greet guests.
Welcome to the quintessentially genteel B&B, all decked out for the holidays. But don’t get too comfortable, because there’s something vaguely disturbing about this place. It could be the portrait of an unhappy-looking woman hanging in the living room. Or the ugly little trolls and ceramic angels crowding every surface. Or maybe it’s just those damned dolls.
The eternally endearing Georgia Engel is a reassuring presence as Mertis Katherine Graven, the sweet-natured proprietress of this alarmingly homey establishment. But the dear old thing has a blind friend, Geraldine Marduk, who could be anything from a wicked witch to Mertis’s guardian angel, in Lois Smith’s wonderfully ambiguous performance.
Elias Schreiber-Hoffman (Christopher Abbott, the former “Girls” star who is appropriately unlikable here as an overbearing bully) and his passive-aggressive girlfriend, Jenny Chung (Hong Chau, sweetly manipulative), arrive late at night and appear to be the only guests. And while the quarrelsome couple had requested to be put up in the Jackson Room, Mertis installs them in the Chamberlain Room, because “the Jackson Room can be a little temperamental.”
Whatever does that mean? And what’s to be made of the fact that this historic house was a hospital during the Civil War, a dark period when it was deprived of all natural light because of the piles of discarded amputated limbs blocking the windows? Although only Genevieve comes right out and says she thinks the house is haunted, something strange is surely afoot. Which is fine with us, because we’re with Jenny when she says, “I like spooky things,” and specifically, “I like scary stories.”
That sense of foreboding is expertly sustained and periodically intensified by helmer Sam Gold, who generates the ominous atmosphere by treating the house like another character, a rather disturbed character who could turn ugly without warning. As Baker’s go-to collaborator on plays like “Circle Mirror Transformation” and “The Flick,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama (and is still playing at the Barrow Street Theater), he understands the subtlety of her technique and knows how to maximize the importance of her pregnant pauses and measured silences.
Baker plays true to form in “John” by depending on subtle suggestion rather than definitive action to make her point. But what, precisely, is her point here? If there’s an answer to that, it rests with the dolls.
While Elias is running around on ghost tours of battlefield sites, the three women share a quiet moment in the dark, talking about dolls. Jenny admits to having felt that her dolls hated her for treating them like dolls. Genevieve replies that all dolls are justifiably angry, furious at being trapped in a plastic body with its little face frozen in a blank expression. Only Mertis confesses to feeling “that it would be a wonderful thing to be a doll,” to be free of all responsibility except that of bringing joy to a child.
But the only takeaway from all that buildup is the strong intimation that Jenny is getting ready to break up with Elias for treating her like an inanimate object. And while it’s a valid conclusion to draw about a character, we could have had this whole conversation in a coffee shop.