Theater Diary

Will the actor driving this car, talking to another actor via Bluetooth, turn too fast and hit a jogger? Is that man on the street corner in the play? Are these people exercising under FDR drive in the play? Is that horrible smell in the play? Am I in the play?

On John, Judy, and Empire Travel Agency

John by Annie Baker, directed by Sam Gold. Image via Newyorktheater.me.

September 5: John

Annie Baker, the young playwright whose show John just closed at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre, is known for her silences. At the beginning of the script for The Aliens, the play that won Baker an Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2010, she offers a note of direction on the subject:

About the Pauses and the Silences

At least a third—if not half—of this play is silence. Pauses should be at least three seconds long. Silences should last from five to ten seconds. Long pauses and long silences should, of course, be even longer. An intermission is necessary for about ten different reasons. Each act should run around fifty to fifty-five minutes.

No such note is necessary for John. The director, Sam Gold, has been Baker’s steady collaborator since 2008, and he understands how her silences should sound. After a little exposure, so does the audience. I saw John on a Saturday night on the recommendation of a friend, and for the first five minutes I waited as the people around me learned how to deal with themselves. Their primary instinct was to fill the silences with noises of appreciation—laugh-track laughter and short, breathy snorts; my primary instinct was to be mad at them. But the pauses kept coming, and grew too wide to bridge. This seemed to cause a tiny panic, at first: whispers of “what,” audible throat clearing and weight shifting. After a few minutes, we passed through awkwardness and annoyance to the other side, settling into something quiet and sustained, a little bit like church.

John opens in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, at a bed-and-breakfast tended by a 72-year-old woman named Mertis. Mertis appears to live alone among dozens of dolls, which are arranged along the far wall and around a staircase leading to an unseen second floor. The stage, immaculately lit and designed by Mark Barton and Mimi Lien, portrays the living room and an adjoining kitchen area, which is decked out with French-themed kitsch—Mertis calls this area “Paris,” because it’s open all night, “like a Paris café.” Her arriving guests are a couple in their late twenties or early thirties, Jenny and Eli, who have stopped in Gettysburg on their drive back to Brooklyn from Ohio, where they were visiting Jenny’s parents. They appear to be in the midst of a fight; it’s clear from the outset that their relationship is not long for this world. The first long silence of the play—not really a silence at all—takes place when Mertis shuffles upstairs to show her guests their room. As they ascend out of sight, panting from the weight of heavy bags thudding against the steps, their muffled voices fade to low, indecipherable murmurs. This could be the best part of any play, so realistic and strange are its effects, but John is even better for being an old-school, pleasure-driven piece of theater: the goal here is not alienation. By eavesdropping on Mertis, Eli, and Jenny (and later, on Jenny and Eli fighting upstairs) we learn something obvious that we nevertheless need to be told: that they, like all people, act differently when they think they’re alone. Whether we’ll ever hear their private conversations or see their private selves, stuck as we are in the semipublic living room of the stage, is what we stick around to see. The play runs three hours and fifteen minutes, with two well-timed intermissions, and never once feels too long.

Many of Baker’s plays are about friendships between men (Hilton Als memorably called them “dude fugues”), but John is a women’s play. In my favorite scene, the three female characters are alone, possibly drunk, talking about God. Eli has left for the day to tour the nearby historical sites; Jenny has pled cramps, and in his absence consigned herself to the living room couch, where she texts in the fetal position. Visiting that evening is Genevieve, Mertis’s friend, a salty, eightysomething blind woman in sunglasses. Before she appears, we have reason to believe that Genevieve might not exist: Mertis talks about her friend in a way that suggests she’s actually friendless, and her references to her husband, who ostensibly lives in the house but whom we never see or hear, recall something of Psycho. Sitting in Paris, at the small round table, Genevieve and Mertis eat Vienna Fingers next to an open bottle of white wine. Jenny joins them.

“That was around the time I went crazy,” says Genevieve. She and Jenny are tipsy; Mertis drinks water out of her wine glass. After she left her husband fifty years ago, Genevieve says, she started to hear his voice in her head. “Sometimes I would have a thought of my own and he’d say: THAT THOUGHT IS MY THOUGHT. ‘THAT THOUGHT IS MY THOUGHT.’” He’d watch her, talk to her, refuse to let her sleep. “What was his name?” Jenny asks. “John,” says Genevieve, “but I called him Jack.”

JENNY

Oh. That’s funny.

GENEVIEVE

Why?

JENNY

I just . . . I just know someone named John.

GENEVIEVE

Everyone knows someone named John.

Later, we get why it’s funny for Jenny: John is the name of the guy she’s been sleeping with, and the source of her fights with Eli. But thematically, for both her and Genevieve, “John”—whom everybody knows at least one (version) of—is a stand-in for God. “Sometimes I still feel him. Watching me. Just a little. A little glance now and again,” says Genevieve. “It’s not so bad, though. Sometimes it’s bordering on pleasant.” This leads Mertis to ask Jenny whether she ever feels watched. “By like . . . God?” she asks. “Just . . . a watcher,” says Mertis. “A greater . . . a larger presence watching you from somewhere.” Jenny doesn’t think so, but she did feel watched by her American Girl doll, Samantha, the most popular doll in the line, whom she saved two years’ worth of babysitting money to buy. But the doll watched in a menacing way, not a protective one.

Samantha is another proxy God, a kind of girl-John whom “everyone knows” and recognizes: Mertis even has a Samantha in her house, prominently displayed on a tiny throne—a pedestal, almost—to the right of the stairs. Her presence makes Jenny uneasy. Jenny says she always thought Samantha was mad at her for not making her life as a doll easier. At night, she’d hide Samantha in the cupboard to avoid her angry stare. (“Of course she was angry,” says Genevieve. “Angry to be a doll! To be a piece of plastic or glass and to be shaped into a human form and trapped! With one expression on your face! Frozen! People manhandling you. And then put in a dress. Put in an itchy little dress!”) Jenny’s feelings toward Samantha—and toward her own John—are unresolved, and it’s around these two figures that the play turns. John is the voice in Genevieve’s head, the name on Jenny’s pinging phone, the absent third whose “huge cock” inspires disfiguring jealousy in Eli. Samantha is Jenny’s twin, who, unlike her, has to be constant and unchanging, a good American girl. Whether manifest in John or Samantha, “God” is the figure whom women feel guilty toward—and haunted by—when they choose to abandon what makes them miserable.

Jenny abandons Samantha and ultimately Eli: she can’t meet their implicit demand that she be a faithful and sacrificial caretaker, or remake herself in the image of their good examples. Samantha is a perfect doll, Eli a good boyfriend, but Jenny isn’t a good or perfect anything. She craves forgiveness but fears condemnation even more, and so she lies and sneaks around, hiding her doll in the cupboard at night and covering up her relationship with John on the side. Genevieve belongs to a different generation: she left her husband in California in 1964, six years before the state brought no-fault divorce to this country, and discovered that it took more than physical distance to kill the patriarch in her head. Sometimes when freedom is yours for the taking, you still want permission to take it. How else can you be sure you won’t be punished for it later, in which case it wasn’t freedom to begin with? The John who lived in Genevieve’s head finally gave her his blessing—and her reprieve—when she promised she would never marry again. This was the penance her conscience required.

Part of what makes the scene in Paris so excellent is the same thing that makes much of Baker’s work excellent: her characters’ orientation toward their own psychology, which is amateur and therapeutic without being sentimental or trite. By making her characters spiritual and not especially well-spoken, drawn to big mysteries but lacking intellectual tools, she positions them to talk about themselves undefended—thereby doing the double work of exposition and action. The kinds of questions Mertis asks, which mark her as the most spiritual of the four, grant a natural pretext for why Jenny, Genevieve, and Eli might tell each other (and the audience, the other “watcher”) more about themselves than a less ruminative plot might call for. Talking and listening, explaining and misspeaking, figuring out who one is through the process of telling stories, is the action of the play, and it’s enlivening to see it done so well.

There’s one superfluous experiment in John, which takes place before the second intermission. After the curtain closes, Genevieve gropes her way toward the edge of the stage and calls out for the audience to stop—she has a five-minute story to tell. This monologue is zany and fun, listing the seven stages in which she went mad, and is slyly wise in a Chekhovian way (Baker loves Chekhov). But it’s a little shticky and remedial, laying out the symbolism for anybody who didn’t catch it the first time. In the seventh stage, says Genevieve, “I realized that this was all the work of my ex-husband, not God. I became aware that he had replaced God in the celestial sphere. There had been some kind of battle between John and God and John had won. I was now in a godless world. John’s world.”

This speech is inessential—we already know what she’s saying—but Lois Smith is so winning in the role that it’s hard to wish the scene gone. Georgia Engel is excellent, too, as Mertis, but Jenny, played by Hong Chau, was my favorite. Perhaps I related to the way Jenny acts bigger than her size, or was moved by the fact that I, too, had Samantha, and felt an eerie sense of thwarted will emanating from her doll body—but I’ve never identified so strongly with a woman so morally in the wrong as I did with Chau’s Jenny, nor felt so sure that she was, despite all evidence, in the right. Characters as complex as hers are hard to come by in art, despite being everywhere in life, and if any living playwright is capable of writing more of them, it’s Baker.


September 11: JUDY

Judy, which premiered at the New Ohio Theatre in the West Village, belongs to a different universe than John, but it shares so much with Baker’s play that it’s hard not to think of them together. Written by another young playwright, Max Posner, Judy takes place in the year 2040 in an unnamed American suburb—“Nothing coastal. A cold, unremarkable, mid-sized city”—and unfolds within the finished basements of three adult siblings, Kris, Tara, and Timothy. They mostly communicate through a tablet/computer system called the System, which, ominously, fails often.

The play opens on Timothy, who has recently been abandoned by his wife, Judy—another absent J-name whose residual presence determines the plot. When his 11-year-old adopted daughter Eloise gets her first period, Timothy finds himself psychologically and materially unprepared (the house has no pads). Most things can be mediated by technology in 2040—Kris and Timothy “volunteer” “in Iran” by watching Iranian orphans on their System screens—but premature menstruation in a motherless household is the rare crisis that requires human contact. Kris and Tara help, but they have problems of their own. Tara’s 14-year-old adopted son, Kalvin, is acting out in school (he “pooped in the urinal,” she says). On the upside, the New Age group she leads on Thursdays is attracting a following. Kris, the oldest, is lonely: her boyfriend died fourteen years ago on 1/16, a day of national crisis, when a yoga teacher named Shauna orchestrated a mass murder in candlelit yoga classes across the country. (“It happened when everyone was in Child’s Pose,” Kalvin tells Eloise with morbid relish. “Everyone was really relaxed.”) The play takes place on four different days around midmonth—January 16, February 14, March 15, and April 17—which coincide with Eloise’s periods, when the sisters leave their basements and join Timothy in his.

Weird things happen in basements, and the fact that they do is the thematic heart and organizing principle of Judy. In the psychic architecture of a house, the basement is the unconscious: the storage unit for all your old baggage, and a place to retreat to when you need to hide. It’s also “backstage” to the house’s more public parts, the proscenium living rooms and foyers where you must put on a straight face and never break character. Basements appeared on the periphery in John, where they had something of this vibe: Mertis tells Eli her first husband electrocuted himself in the basement while building “a kind of contraption” (“I won’t go into the gory details,” she says), and Jenny tells Mertis her Samantha doll now lives in a box in her parents’ basement with the rest of her old toys (“I carved out some little windows with a knife so they could peep out”). In a stage direction for Judy, Posner writes, “In addition to other things, a basement is where the innards of one’s technological System live.”

Like John, Judy takes place in one room with a staircase going up; the siblings’ three basements occupy the same space onstage, a complicated but economical choice. This lays the groundwork for some upstairs/downstairs, public-self/private-self metaphorical extension, but it’s something of a red herring: you never see the characters upstairs, so there’s not much to mine from the contrast. What Judy gets right is play—particularly the kind of playing that happens in finished basements. Dress-up, kissing practice, channeling the dead: these games have a slightly scary, taboo edge, and with good reason. Under the aegis of harmless make-believe (“just pretending”), something heavy can emerge.

The best writing and acting in Judy can be found in these moments. In the first, Kalvin and Eloise attempt to channel the dead yoga terrorist Shauna. The cousins close their eyes, touching hands. “Why would you do that, Shauna?” Eloise cries. Kalvin frowns. “She doesn’t like that question,” he says. “She’s mad at you. She wants us to lie down.” They do, belly-up, side by side, and touch hands again. “Are you sorry, Shauna?” Eloise asks.

KALVIN

She says she is.

. . .

Now she’s asking you a question.

She’s wondering if you have a boyfriend.

ELOISE

Tell her I don’t.

KALVIN

She doesn’t.

. . .

Now she’s asking a follow-up question.

She’s wondering if you want one.

ELOISE

Yes?

KALVIN

Yes she says.

ELOISE

Now she’s asking you a question.

She’s wondering if you’ve ever kissed anyone.

Beat. To Shauna:

He hasn’t.

. . .

She’s wondering if you saw someone who looked just like me on a street somewhere if you’d want to kiss her.

. . .

Yes he says.

But Shauna is coming closer, says Kalvin, cutting off the exchange. They get into child’s pose, per Shauna’s demand, and try to cry for her.

In another scene, Timothy sits in the basement in his deceased father’s wheelchair. Draped loosely over his head, lap, and shoulders are the clothes Judy left behind. When Eloise catches him, confused (“Dad?”), he says he’s not her dad—he’s her dad’s identical twin brother, Gerald! Eloise doesn’t buy it, but something about being in character allows Timothy to talk more freely with his daughter than he can as himself. “Congratulations on becoming a Woman,” Timothy/Gerald says in a high, ladylike voice, poised in his raiment. “I have eight daughters so I’m used to talking about these sortsa things. Maybe someday you can vid them, show each other your pets.” It’s a great scene, and when Eloise slips and forgets Gerald isn’t really Gerald—“I hate my dad,” she confesses—Timothy reacts generously, demonstrating for the first time that he really is a father. “You can tell me anything,” he says. “I understand why you hate him. . . . He probably needs to be more direct.” Maybe—but if the scene tells us anything, it’s that performance remains a better communication technology than anything else in 2040. The epigraph for Judy is a line from Chekhov’s Three Sisters, about the future: “Well, after we’re gone, people will travel around in flying machines, they’ll wear different-style jackets, maybe they’ll discover a sixth sense and expand our perceptions, but life won’t change. It will still be hard and happy and mysterious.”

The acting is uneven in Judy, and some of the script’s more writerly monologues feel out of step with the general mood. For all its thematic resonances with John—the title, the New Age sincerity, the husband who may or may not exist (Tara’s, in Judy), the slight racial tension, the periods—Judy feels like a very different play, and it may come down to pacing. Anything would seem too fast following the slow dance of John, but there were stretches of Judy that I thought could be better served by silence than by talk—by being slow and dumb rather than fast and clever. But in the playing scenes, and in their culmination at the very end, the actors have room to flex. Deirdre O’Connell, as Kris, is incredible, and her steadiness in the role anchors the performance, as befits a big sister.


September 14: Empire Travel Agency

The latest from Woodshed Collective, a young theater company known for staging site-specific immersive work long before Sleep No More came to town, Empire Travel Agency unfolds over a dozen-odd locations in downtown Manhattan for an audience of four. With a cast of twenty-five and a production team almost three times that size, the enterprise feels like a heist: months of research and orchestration must have gone into this show. Its moving parts are timed to a T, with give built in for contingencies—audience members getting lost between scenes, pigeons flying into the set, trains getting rerouted, all of which happened over the course of its initial run.1 Consequently, even its most basic achievements are feats. So many things could go wrong, but they don’t.

The play begins on a nondescript corner of the financial district, at a phone booth outside an Apple Bank. You arrive at 7:27 PM sharp, and if the first thing goes right, so do your fellow audience members (in my case, Tammy, Giovanni, and John). The phone rings, and someone in the audience picks it up. They listen and nod, yes, yes, and hand the phone to someone else. She listens, nods too, and repeats the directions you’ll have to remember. Then the phone comes to you, and a voice on the line—that of Rhonda Cadwallader, who runs the Empire Travel Agency and has booked your “tour” today—says she’s so glad you could make it. “Please tell John,” she adds, “that I love his tie!” and hangs up. John is in fact wearing a tie, so you repeat her compliment. Then you’re on your own, responsible for delivering yourselves to the next location. A few blocks and an escalator later, another character is waiting for you.

The gist of the plot, which comes through in patchy exposition and doesn’t always make sense, is that the Empire Travel Agency is a Knights Templar­–like organization that controls the disbursement of Ambrose, a kind of prosperity steroid that makes a city great when dumped into its water supply. The manufacture of Ambrose has long been based in New York City, but a rogue agent has stolen the recipe and threatens to relocate its production—possibly, for complicated reasons, to Winnipeg. To stop it from leaving the city, a number of shady New Yorkers with vested interests emerge, including a real estate developer and his wannabe henchmen, a gallery owner and a late-blooming painter, and a group of conspiracy theorists at a conspiracy conference. Positioned to be a proxy bidder at a secret auction of the recipe, you, the audience, are passed from shady character to shady character as each tries to persuade you to bid on their behalf. It is paramount, they say, that you trust them and nobody else, but of course the opposite is true. According to subtle cues and the conventions of theatergoing—a lingering reminder that you are in a play, no matter how much you want to stay with this or that character and hang out—you must trust everyone in order for the show to continue.

Immersive theater, which on principle grants the audience room to wander or engage the actors at will, always runs the risk of being too ambitious or not ambitious enough. Give the audience too much freedom and you lose control of the show; give too little and you wind up with a haunted house. Either way, one thing that makes immersive theater different from “normal” theater is that it distributes anxiety over how well the show goes more evenly between the performers and the audience, because the audience members are performers of a kind, too. What binds the two parties isn’t intimacy or even goodwill but the need to reinforce the reality they have agreed to uphold, if only before themselves. They are a team, engaged in a team performance, and, as the sociologist Erving Goffman writes of team performances, “any member of the team has the power to give the show away or to disrupt it by inappropriate conduct. Each teammate is forced to rely on the good conduct and behavior of his fellows, and they, in turn, are forced to rely on him. There is then, perforce, a bond of reciprocal dependence linking teammates to one another.”

Some of my anxieties during Empire Travel Agency were: Will the actor driving this car, talking to another actor via Bluetooth, turn too fast and hit a jogger? Is that man on the street corner in the play? Are these people exercising under FDR drive in the play? Is that horrible smell in the play? Am I in the play? Is Giovanni in the play? Is that woman texting on a stoop a production assistant, letting another production assistant know we’re on our way? Did we just run down the wrong hallway? Is this actor hitting on me in character, or is he hitting on me as himself? Above all, how must I act to make events go according to plan?

Such questions yield surprising insights. For starters, it’s crazy that anyone drives a car. It’s scary to ride shotgun as an actor recites lines while driving, but even scarier—crazier—is that people do this all the time, while improvising, which requires more focus. One personal revelation was how little time it took me to assume responsibility as a participant—to want, very badly, to help the actors do their job. I began to act, too, to reinforce the reality of the world they presented, delirious and hole-ridden as it was. Only occasionally did I think of how I must look to them or consider how much of myself I revealed in this process. I thought of Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which borrows the language of theater to describe how people act when making impressions on others or assessing the impressions others make on them. If Goffman’s work uses dramaturgical nomenclature to capture how much of social life is composed of theatrical performance, Empire Travel Agency brings life-as-performance back into performance, then back into life again—a dizzying maneuver easier felt than explained.

One scene in particular, the car ride with the real estate developer’s henchmen, is worth noting. Frank is driving, talking on the Bluetooth to Gary, looping the one-way streets around Old Slip in his Range Rover. From the passenger seat, you see him in profile, and though you can look more boldly than you would under ordinary circumstances, you’re still held back from staring by some conditioned sense of conduct. The lights pass over his face, and he makes eye contact with your comrades in the rearview mirror. “I don’t always wanna be doin’ grunt work,” he says. It’s intimate, like film, but embodied: you cannot forget your legs, your torso, your face and the fact that he can see it. Undeniably, this person is beside you, unpredictable and present. It was a simulation of reality I felt like I had seen before, but had only ever imagined from watching thousands of hours of movies and TV. Here it was before me—still mediated, but less so than most things I encounter; an odd, powerful sensation. It was free, but I would pay to feel it again.

  1. Note: one of the founding members of Woodshed Collective, Stephen Squibb, writes and edits for n+1

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