Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Arden Theatre Company
Review by Cameron Kelsall | Season Schedule

Carla Belver and Nancy Boykin
Photo by Mark Garvin
Perhaps more than any other writer currently working, Annie Baker's plays live and die in the silent moments that fill the spaces between the big occurrences. A fight between two lovers who seem destined to separate may be the action that drives the story forward, but our understanding comes from how they react, together and apart, to the pain they've inflicted on each other. Because so much of Baker's work exists in this in-between realm, the actors, directors and designers charged with bringing her stories to life onstage must approach the task with pinpoint precision. The Philadelphia premiere of her 2015 play John, directed by Matthew Decker and presented under the auspices of the Arden Theatre Company, gets much of this unique writer's tone and style right, while falling short in other areas.

On its face, John is about a troubled relationship. Elias and Jenny (played here by Kevin Meehan and Jing Xu) are quickly hurtling towards their inevitable breakup. Driving back from Columbus, where they spent the Thanksgiving holidays, to New York, where they live, they decide to spend a few nights in a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, bed and breakfast, which is owned and operated by an alternately mysterious and mercurial woman named Mertis Katherine (Nancy Boykin). Along the way, they also become acquainted with Mertis' best friend, a blind old woman named Genevieve (Carla Belver) with a penchant for the philosophical.

Mertis' bed and breakfast is meant to have an unsettling effect. The decorations favor creepy dolls and porcelain tchotchkes, all of which seem to be watching their human cohabitants. The idea of being watched—feeling a presence in and around yourself that you can sense but not see—becomes a major theme of the play, as each character expresses that, at one point or another, they have felt themselves the subject of voyeurism. Tim Mackabee's ornately realized set and Maria Shaplin's moody lighting perfectly communicate this feeling and appropriately evoke a sense of existential threat.

The performances, however, are more of a mixed bag. Mertis is unquestionably the most difficult role. The actor playing her must be able to appear kindly and somewhat absentminded on the surface, while hinting that something sinister may lurk underneath the veneer. Boykin does not get much farther than the former state. Her performance exists very much on the surface, and with almost no subtlety; she says the lines as written, but seems to ignore the barrage of notes that Baker provides in the text, which are meant to add shading to Mertis' outwardly cheery manner. Georgia Engel, who originated the role in the play's New York premiere, perfectly captured this duality; with Boykin, I often felt like I was watching a performance in a Hallmark TV movie.

Similarly, in order for Elias and Jenny's eventual uncoupling to feel appropriately devastating, the audience needs to be able to understand that they truly loved each other at some point. We should flinch when one or the other inflicts a small cruelty, aware that the characters know they are causing unnecessary pain. Neither Meehan nor Xu are able to make this come across, though each has strong moments in their individual performances. Only Belver—a legend in Philadelphia theater—truly nails every facet of her dark and complicated character.

Decker should have worked a bit harder to ensure cohesion within his ensemble. I also feel that this production—which clocks in at two hours and forty-five minutes, with two brief intermissions—is paced a bit too briskly to completely convey the world that Baker tries to create in her text. In that respect, though, I seem to be alone—at least based on the performance I attended, at which the audience seemed restless, shrinking in size with each intermission. Producing John was a risk for the Arden; I'm sure their patron services team is fielding many calls from unhappy subscribers right now. So, even though I feel the production could have been stronger, I applaud them for taking the risk to even present such a difficult and demanding play in the first place.

John continues at the Arden Theatre (40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA) through Sunday, February 26, 2017. Tickets ($15-52) can be purchased online at or by calling 215-922-1122.

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