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Georgia Engel’s quirky innkeeper fuels ACT’s ‘John’

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From left, Stacey Yen, Georgia Engel and Joe Paulik star in American Conservatory Theater’s production of “John.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

There’s something decidedly odd about the bed and breakfast -– and its proprietor, Mertis — in “John.”

It’s not just the player piano that bursts into song by itself, or the Christmas tree lights that switch on and off at unexpected moments, or the sitting room so cluttered with knick-knacks, stuffed animals, and antique dolls it would give Marie Kondo a migraine.

No, the strange aura that permeates the sprawling and surprisingly touching American Conservatory Theater production of Annie Baker’s 2015 drama emanates directly from Mertis, played to spooky, endearing perfection by Georgia Engel.

As Mertis, Engel (best known for her long-running role as Georgette on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) lets us know that her establishment near Gettysburg, Penn., is, well, special.

When a young couple, Elias (Joe Paulik) and Jenny (Stacey Yen), check in – they’re tourists who have come for the nearby Civil War battleground tours – Mertis tells them that the place has “temperamental” rooms. It was once a field hospital, she explains, describing its grisly work in the kind of voice you might use to read fairy tales to small children.

Mertis herself is “a tiny bit” of a mindreader. Her husband, George, is ill in the next room, but never appears. Her best friend, Genevieve (Ann McDonough), injects an increasingly bizarre note, announcing that she was once possessed and went suddenly blind.

If this sounds like the stuff of gothic drama, think again. Baker, whose earlier plays include “Circle Mirror Transformation” and the Pulitzer-winning “The Flick,” is more interested in the ways people connect – or don’t – and the strange and often perplexing ways language limits our ability to do so. The haunting quality the playwright achieves here is all about the mysteries of the human heart.

Director Ken Rus Schmoll lets the show unfold organically on Marsha Ginsberg’s extravagantly detailed set.

It’s a long play, one that loops from the surreal to the mundane and back again (Mertis marks the passage of time by moving the hands of an antique grandfather clock) and the performances sustain its length.

Paulik and Yen are superb as the couple whose minor disagreements escalate into full-blown alienation, and McDonough veers from otherworldly to surprisingly plain-spoken as Genevieve.

Still, it’s Engel who makes “John” something special. With her baby-soft voice and determined air of concern, her Mertis is an engrossing creation. Odd first impressions aside, her bed and breakfast ends up being a pretty warm place to spend the night.

Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Strand, 1127 Market St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sundays, closes April 23
Tickets: $20 to $105
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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