Annie Baker is going to slow you down. The pauses drove some people mad in “The Aliens,” Baker’s play of slackers hanging out behind a small-town coffee shop, and walkouts were common in her three-hour-plus “The Flick,” which observed three young workers in an aging movie house — and which won a 2014 Pulitzer Prize.
Baker’s ghostly drama “John” is just over three hours, too, roughly the same running time as August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” now at Arena Stage (in other words, let’s not pick on Baker for playing a long game). “John” does not wrap its fingers around you the way “The Flick” did in its excellent 2016 staging at Signature Theatre, even though director Joe Calarco has again created a meticulous, extremely well-acted production. Having loved the gradually radiant “The Flick,” I wanted to love “John,” and that didn’t happen — it’s too slippery, less taut, and definitely not for anyone put off by Baker’s novelistic approach before.
Still, I may be more gripped by “John.” It’s a mystical puzzle that teases you to fill in the blanks.
At its most basic level, “John” is about a young Brooklyn couple maybe breaking up during a stay at a Gettysburg bed-and-breakfast. Elias Schreiber-Hoffman (played by Jonathan Feuer) is kind of edgy; his girlfriend of three years, Jenny Chung (Anna Moon), is more withdrawn. Turns out Jenny recently cheated on Elias. The guy’s name was John.
The bed-and-breakfast is a little haunted, but what house isn’t? Baker plays with metaphysical ingredients, getting the lights on a Christmas tree to flicker portentously while Bach plays on a glowing CD player. Paige Hathaway’s set is intensely decorated with knickknacks and dolls that even line the staircase to the second floor; the shadows thrown by Andrew Cissna’s lights are particularly artful.
The B&B is run by an older woman named Mertis, who theatrically adjusts the hands on a grandfather clock between scenes and who seems exceptionally attuned to the universe. Nancy Robinette is sublime in the role — just plain grounded, even as she lends almost comic lilt to a simple line like, “Oh,” when the couple says they’ll be down for breakfast on the later side.
This is how Baker works: the talk is real, not intensified or stagy. And as in “The Flick,” with movies projected overhead and popcorn being swept from the floor, you sink into the rich specificity of this B&B and feel it come slightly alive. Jenny is obsessed with dolls, and a sort of role-reversal is suggested as Elias threatens one of them: Are we all puppets in the universe? What haunts us? How do other people manipulate us and get inside our heads?
And this, too, is how Baker works: the play’s fourth character is Mertis’s blind friend Genevieve, a kind of mystical visionary who has her own tale of going mad thanks to her late husband, John. Knowing her reputation for writing at length, Baker pulls a wonderfully dry joke on herself at the end of the second act; not to spoil it, but Genevieve arrests the audience and promises to keep it short.
Ilona Dulsaki makes Genevieve tart and blunt behind the blind woman’s heavy sunglasses. Elias wears glasses, too; Baker stipulates that Jenny and Mertis don’t. You’re lured to decode these clues, and to make something of the detail that the house was a hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg, with amputated limbs piling up outside the window. Baker doesn’t snap all of this neatly into place. She’s happy to create frosty breezes that flow into the play as if through the leak we’re told about in one of the bedroom ceilings upstairs.
Yet she also fashions a snappy, tidy finish for her play, a closing line that makes the audience breathe, “Oh.” You can get impatient with Elias and Jenny because of how unpleasant they are together, but Baker wants that realistic friction, and she has a gift for chitchat that suddenly ruptures.
Feuer and Moon get the funk of this cat-and-mouse relationship just right, and it’s an odd but telling facet that Elias and Jenny are never closer than when Elias is making up scary stories at Jenny’s request. The play’s mysticism isn’t entirely satisfying: The increasingly in-control Mertis identifies herself as a “neo-Platonist” (and Baker has called her a witch), which suggests a firm system at work. “John” leaves you in a nether area, slightly stirred and slightly spooked, but impressed again by Baker’s next-level craftiness.
John, by Annie Baker. Directed by Joe Calarco. Costumes, Debra Kim Sivigny; sound design, Kenny Neal. About 3 hours 20 minutes. Through April 29 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Cambell Ave., Arlington. $40-$94. 703-820-9771 or sigtheatre.org.