By Tulis McCall
Annie Baker picks apart silence like a molecular scientist. One atom at a time. She is fearless in her ability to let a thought hang in the air like a cloud. Even a cloud, however, needs to move on or transform eventually. In Antipodes there is no such movement.
The press release uses one sentence to describe this play. “A play about people telling stories about telling stories.” It is that. As to what else it is – you got me there.
This story of the storytellers telling stories exists in a windowless conference room. Everyone is dressed in casual clothing, but they seem to have been selected because they are very, very smart. There are a few newcomers in the group and they are quickly brought up to speed: Everyone at the table is required to tell a story. Could be made up. Could be real. The leader, Sandy (Will Patton) is, first of all, having a very special relationship with his thermos. He is also initially enthusiastic but low-key. Okay. I’m a pretty nice boss. I don’t fire people. Unless they’re complete assholes. You won’t work past seven or on weekends. And I don’t need you to say smart shit all the time.
This work of telling stories, he says, is at the center of their work as a team. Exactly what this work IS, remains a secret kept by the storytellers at the table. There is a feeling that it might be a TV project – but who knows? The order of business is to come up with something Monstrous. And they have been given carte blanche, with the exception of no dwarves or elves, thank you very much. Fauns, manticores, gorgons and a whole lot more are all introduced with varying levels of discussion on each.
Dave (Josh Charles) and Danny #1 (Danny Mastrogiorgio) are alums of the table and comfortable if not downright playful with the protocol. Adam (Phillip James Brannon), Josh (Josh Hamilton), Danny #2 (Danny McCarthy) and the ONE woman Eleanor (Emily Cass McDonnell) are having some difficulty figuring out what is going on. I know the feeling.
The last person at the table is Brian (Brian Miskell) who is there to take notes. Which he pretty much does not do. (He was sitting with his back to my side of the audience, and I noticed his screen never changed.) Sarah the receptionist (Nicole Rodenberg) spends most of her time sorting out what everyone is ordering for lunch – or is it dinner? She is an iconic Valley Girl until she tells her own story, and then all bets are off.
The initial conversation of something monstrous soon devolves into personal stories – sex is of course the first subject. Nothing surprising there. In short order Sandy is pulled away from the table (to which he wanted everyone else fully committed) because life is calling. Trauma and distraction are out there in the other world – and they will continue to call him while the rest of the team stays put. Speaking of which – Sandy’s promise that they would not work past 7PM and would have the weekends off is tossed out the window. This feels more like detention rather than collaboration. It is difficult to tell how much time they spend there (seemed like weeks to me). The clear signs of time passing are some very cleverly choreographed appearances of takeout, and Sarah’s change of clothing. Every time she enters she is wearing a different Coulotte sort of arrangement. No one else changes clothes, except Sandy who removes his baseball cap for the last scene. But there is that sweater knit in the blink of an eye….
In all of Annie Baker’s other plays John, The Flick, Circle Mirror Transformation, Uncle Vanya (adaptation) there is a core event, a circumstance that pulls her characters together. There is no such event here. Baker is playing with ideas – space, time – is it horizontal, vertical or a spiral – possibility, relativity, possibility – and this is a smart writer who introduces subjects like a card dealer slapping down cards in Vegas. But the velocity and density of the changing subjects makes the writing too clever by half.
Nothing connects. Not these fine actors (seriously excellent performances all around), not these characters, not the stories and not the situation. The only thing that connects them is the silence, and that, my friends does not a story make. These storytellers go on and on until they are all eating their own tales, and the ensuing silence eventually snuffs out everything within reach.
FYI – Antipodes – In geography, the antipode of any place on Earth is the point on the Earth’s surface that is diametrically opposite to it.
Even the title is disconnected.
The one incident that had everyone’s attention was the audience member who, just before the show started, walked onto the set and picked up one of the cartons of seltzer that were piled up in a corner. A stage crew member appeared like a ghost, took back the package and directed the guy to caboose. At the end of the show the same idiot moseyed back onto the stage and took a can of seltzer from one of the now opened cartons. A DIFFERENT stage crew member appeared, took the can and shooed the guy OUT. Now THAT is theatre.
THE ANTIPODES – , written by Annie Baker and directed by Lila Neugebauer.
WITH Phillip James Brannon, Josh Charles, Josh Hamilton, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Danny McCarthy, Emily Cass McDonnell, Brian Miskell, Will Patton, Nicole Rodenburg.
Laura Jellinek (Scenic Design), Kaye Voyce (Costume Design), Tyler Micoleau (Lighting Design), Bray Poor
Signature Theatre (Paige Evans, Artistic Director; Erika Mallin, Executive Director; James Houghton, Founder) is proud to present the world premiere production of The Antipodes The production will now run through May 28, 2017 in The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues).