“John” – Stray Cat Theatre

This review aired on KBAQ September 19, 2016


Stray Cat Theatre, Studio Theatre, Tempe Center for the Arts
Tempe, AZ

Stray Cat Theatre is one of the Valley’s most innovative and exciting theater companies as it avoids popular Broadway hits to present the latest offbeat off-Broadway plays and musicals.  The company even tackles a world premiere Black comedy by local playwright Ron Hunting later.  But to open this season, they present one of the first regional productions of Annie Baker’s recent off-Broadway play, “John.”  The playwright won a Pulitzer Prize for her “The Flick” that was a previous Stray Cat production.  But award-winning playwrights aren’t always successful and “John” is confusing with its point obscured amidst several possible issues.  It’s not the Stray Cat production that is at fault, it is the play.

Set in a foreboding and historic Gettysburg bed and breakfast operated by bizarre Mertis, the play focuses on a guest couple, Jenny and Elias, who have fights, and confrontations a problem with their relationship.  Mertis tries to assist but her weird suggestions baffle more than help.  Late in the play, Elias explodes suggesting why the relationship is troubled.  A wacko blind friend of Mertis, Genevieve, “observes” the guests struggles and seems to have influence if not control on Mertis.

The play’s problem is that all this minutia becomes clear early and while it appears that turns and twists will materialize to make things interesting, nothing unexpected occurs.  The plays three hour plus running time drags as nothing happens.

Director Ron May falls for the play’s weaknesses and he paces the meandering plot at a plodding drag further aggravating an already dull play.  Baker tries without success to introduce some things like Mertis’s doll collection and a bizarre second floor collection of erratic rooms but these details do nothing to make the play interesting.

The cast tries desperately to inject their never changing characters with some spark but to no avail.  Shari Watts is a lovable Mertis but Watts can’t make her character appealing.  Will Hightower is initially logical and calm Elias but you immediately suspect some weird rage lurks in him.  Michelle Chin’s Jenny is first wacky but it’s clear she is the more stable person in the doomed relationship.  Debra Lyman’s odd Genevieve never changes during the meandering play.  The only interesting tidbit is how the play’s title character is used just before the final curtain.

“John” continues through October 1.  To order tickets, go online to www.straycattheatre.org.

Grade: D