The couple enter an eerie bed & breakfast. A menacing doll stares down at them from its high perch of a shelf, its wide-open eyes appearing to follow the twenty-something duo across the living room. The girlfriend mentions how she once had the exact same doll as a young girl. She locked it away, and she was convinced the doll had feelings and would never forgive her for abandoning it. Throw in an elderly B&B host, Mertis, who seems to be too eager to please, in an awkward Anthony Perkins kind of way, and keeps mentioning a husband who never appears. The tension mounts.
It’s the perfect setup for a classic horror film, set against the nearby graves of the Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Maybe this is going to be the female sequel to “Chucky”. It’s easy to brace for that moment when the evil forces build to an uncontrollable level, then finally unleash their chaos on everyone involved.
It’s a perfect clichéd setup for John the latest play at the Seymour Centre – except that its playwright Annie Baker has ideas beyond the usual horror formula. She’s more interested in the dynamic between the couple; an attractive but neurotic Asian-American girl, Jenny (played by Jenny Chung), and her testy Jewish musician-slash-corporate boyfriend, Elias (James Bell). There’s tension between the two of them, and the play keeps us guessing as to why.
Chung and Bell are adept at their roles, but John truly shines each time its senior protagonist, Metris Graven, takes the stage. Belinda Giblin gives a commanding performance as the matronly B&B host, with her love of dolls, antiques and other bric-a-brac “tchotchkes” (Elias’ description). Giblin serves each line with a straight face, but there is irony aplenty in Metris’ doe-eyed deliveries, and the results are delightfully comic.
Metris seems to know more than what she’s letting on, and there’s constant wonder about what she knows about her two-story house, the bedroom she tells the couple to avoid, and the spirits that might be inhabiting every light, creak and doll. She is also the commander of the living area’s grandfather cloth, which she regularly winds as time follows to set each scene, from dawn to dusk and the foreboding hours past midnight.
The only thing better than seeing Gibilin solo on stage is when she’s joined by Maggie Blinco as her blind and half-feeble friend Genevieve. The two tell stories in the candlelight with the glee and foreboding of wise old women – could they secretly be witches? What do they know that they’re not telling the visiting couple? There’s suspense in every line, and the two often deliver quirky deadpan lines to audience laughter.
John has much to offer, and its only overestimation is its running time – a 3.5-hour marathon in three acts. Metris’ mysteries and the downward spirals of the young couple could reveal themselves in far less time and retain their potency. Glblin and Blinco are captivating, and they need to be to keep the audience at easy in their seats. Make sure to grab dinner beforehand or be prepared for some midnight snacking.
Photo Maggie Blinco, Belinda Giblin and Shuang Hu, by Clare Hawley