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Undermain Theatre, Dallas

Annie Baker’s John examines the costs of misjudging how long to stay in a relationship. Her patient eye with seemingly minor moments–the almost invisible skirmishes that dot the battlefield of a relationship–can make you wonder why nothing seems to be happening on stage at times. But  there’s a solid dramatic architect at work here.

We begin near the actual touristed battleground of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with a quarrelsome young couple checking in at a rambling B&B. This “old chestnut” scenario is refreshed by Baker’s wry observations of the present day B&B–the stay arranged-for online, living room packed with trying-too-hard curios intended to be charming, the hovering hostess who sits with you at breakfast to give that value-add of personal attention when you might just prefer to crunch your complimentary granola in silence.

Here Elias (Scott Zenreich) and Jenny (Olivia de Guzman) will navigate and save their three-year relationship, or not. De Guzman quietly delivers the goods as Jenny. She actually has conversations rather than performing conversations–listening, trying, hoping, hiding, hurting and being hurt.

Zenreich and Director Dubose have elected to portray Elias as abnormally self-absorbed, unperceiving of Jenny, shrill in his protests of personal pain, seemingly incapable of normal empathy. It’s a possible interpretation of the text but not one Baker specifically indicates. The choice throws off the balance of the drama. It so heavily weights our sympathies toward Jenny that it’s unclear why they ever got together. And while the play ultimately lurches our sympathies around dramatically, the choice to portray Elias this way comes at a cost. Their quarrels and connections could have tugged on our own empathy more and revealed more of the human heart–if Elias weren’t such an utter, whiny pill. But Baker’s ear for naturalistic dialogue is so thrillingly acute, the work stands up anyway. She take us on a painful, hyperrealistic emotional ride, with the hope of wisdom as its destination.

Elly Lindsay is calmly daffy as Mertis, the owner, attentive yet spacey, the New Age-y Neo-Platonist who has assembled this dusty, magical refuge where severed limbs once piled ten feet high during its service in the Civil War as a Union hospital. Now it’s where bloodied relationships go for triage. Scenic Designer Robert Winn really lets the B&B sprawl in the Undermain’s cavernous space and fills it all up with perfect chochkes. The 30-inch wide industrial columns are outfitted in Victorian wallpaper and wainscoting. It’s delightful when Mertis leads the couple way offstage “upstairs” and we hear the extended conversation during the showing of the room.

Baker introduces an elderly, blind woman as an oracular figure, a familiar-feeling device used to good effect here. Genevieve, Mertis’ imperious friend, shares recollections of feeling utterly besieged and occupied by an ex-husband’s personality to the point of causing her mental illness. She provides the long view on where relationships can sometimes be really wrong for human happiness, especially for women in traditional arrangements. Genevieve’s eccentricities also provide comic relief from the wearing discomforts of the main couple’s bouts. Undermain company member Rhonda Boutte’ is well cast. She brings her trademark theatrical, growly vocal variety, a bit like Eartha Kitt giving an oration. It’s always interesting, if not especially grounded, and well used here. Paired with Mertis, they provide an off-kilter yet soothing setting for first Jenny, and later Elias. They can breathe and reflect in the company of the two older women, and revel in an Offenbach aria while quietly munching Vienna Fingers. It’s so simple and dreamy, if only for a little while.

  • Drama
  • By Annie Baker
  • Directed by Bruce Dubose
  • Cast includes Elly Lindsay, Rhonda Boutte', Olivia de Guzman, Scott Zenreich
  • Undermain Theatre, Dallas
  • Until 10 December 2017
  • Review by Paul Meltzer
  • 18 November 2017

2 Responses

  1. Bruce DuBose

    Thank you for seeing and writing about the production Paul. There’s only one point that I’d like to clear up for your readers. Actually Scott Zenreich (in a wonderful performance) is performing the role of Elias exactly as Annie Baker has written it. Its dark and troubling, but Elias is beset by jealousy and is the victim of a long period of deception. Anyone who’s ever suffered through something like this realizes that this can lead to behavior that is uncharacteristic of their true nature. Elias is also withdrawing from anti-depressant usage which leads to what he describes as “brain-zaps”. At one point he even apologizes to one character saying “I’ve never done anything like that, maybe I’m losing my mind” Several times Jenny says “please stop yelling” and eventually says to him “you’re scaring me.” If the actor playing Elias is not raising his voice or being intimidating it would make Jenny’s lines completely hollow. The scene in which Jenny requests that Elias go ahead and yell at her, Mr. Zenreich does so, shockingly, exactly according to Baker’s very specific stage directions. Yes, Jenny is more outwardly sympathetic and I don’t want to ruin any surprises for anyone who’s not yet seen the production, but this is all to Annie Baker’s skill as a dramatist. She presents us characters not easily analyzed (one of whom seems thorny and difficult to like) and skews the dynamic of their conflict so that by the end the viewer is left with a shifting empathy, increasing the dramatic tension at the core of the play. When I direct I aim to be true to the authors intent and would never skew the dynamics at work there. I am fortunate to have an such a talented playwright and cast to work with here.

    Also, if one researches the Tales of Hoffman aria used at the end of the play (Elias’s last name is also Hoffman) it reveals a deeper level of meaning as Hoffman has been given glasses that make him mistake a singing automaton doll for a live woman who is singing like a bird. When his glasses are removed he sees things for what they truly are.

    • Paul Meltzer

      Thank you for writing in, Bruce. I noted all the points in the script you mention while watching the performance, but my truthful response was that he seemed like a person who is sort of at one end of the spectrum–that kind of person–rather than a fundamentally relatable person experiencing those extreme stresses. A subtle-sounding point but it goes to the stakes in the conflict, whether we think there’s even a question whether the couple should stay together or not.

      But I think it’s great for our readers to hear straight from the director, so they have my reaction as a reviewer as well as your obviously very considered and informed perspective. And note, four stars indicates a show I found well worth watching.

      I look forward to discussing this one further in a future Undermain production. Those visiting Dallas would do well to check out whatever you have on offer; it’s invariably ambitious and thought-provoking.

      And for those who don’t know, Bruce is also a frequent cast member and one of our favorites.


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