Maria Striar, Crystal Finn & April Matthis. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Maria Striar, Crystal Finn & April Matthis. Photo by Joan Marcus.

By Stanford Friedman

It’s not that the surprise ending is fairly obvious from the get-go in Anne Washburn’s dreary new play, Antlia Pneumatica. And it’s not that director Ken Rus Schmoll’s staging is as static as it is pretentious. No, the real disappointment from the usually trustworthy Playwrights Horizon is that, working against the efforts of a solid ensemble performance, Ms. Washburn has taken a perfectly good idea for a play and loaded on so much artifice that it collapses under its own weight.

Antlia wants to be a ghost story that explores how relationships lose their meaning over time. We are introduced to a group who were close in their 20’s but who are now, more than a decade later, just a “reassembled memory of a community.” The play’s title refers to a constellation of faint stars that was introduced by a French astronomer in the 1700’s. Stars are one of the heavy and reoccurring relationship metaphors at work in the piece: “By the time we see them, they’re facts in the past.”

Things start off promisingly enough though, with opening scenes echoing The Big Chill. Nina (Annie Parisse), her sister Liz (April Matthis) and their friend Ula (Maria Striar) are in the throes of planning a wake for their departed pal from the good ole days, Sean. More friends are due and there is much food to prepare. Len (Nat DeWolf), the requisite funny bachelor character soon arrives, as does Adrian (Rob Campbell), an uninvited old flame of Nina’s. There is something a little off with him and it’s not too hard to figure out what. Then, with the tensions nicely baited and awaiting release, instead of building bonds with the audience, the play instead invests in a series of gimmicks that quickly dull our expectations. Several times, at unexpected moments, the entire cast turn into poetry zombies, suddenly dropping character to face forward and gloomily recite overblown epitaphs or moody reflections such as Len’s uncharacteristic, “There was the night I woke up, tears streaming down my face, and I didn’t know why. And then I thought maybe I did know why.”

Also, there are lengthy sections of the play that are performed off stage which the audience hears over a loudspeaker while sitting in the dark or while watching a character assemble a pie behind a kitchen island. In the program, Ms. Washburn refers to this as “foregrounding the act of listening.” Unfortunately, it is also backgrounding the intent of theater.

Nina’s two young kids are part of the story, sort of. Proving the axiom that children should be seen and not heard, we only get to hear them, and it is irritating. One long moment they’re screeching out an annoying rendition of Yellow Submarine, in the next, one of them has turned into an offstage poetry zombie performing a cloying funeral chant for a dead insect that begins, “Poor ant is dead/The sun shall crown his head.”

When the actors are on stage they are often just passing through, or stuck behind that kitchen island, or lined up next to each other. Still, they are able to turn in some rich characterizations. As Liz, Matthis finds a nice comic bite. DeWolf’s Len is funny and winning in his discovery of what parenting can be like. Meanwhile, the chemistry between Campbell’s Adrian and Parisse’s Nina is palpable, even when just coming through a loudspeaker, even when he tells her, “I haven’t forgotten you. But you’re a memory.” The performances offer a glimmer of hope, but there will be no happy ending, just one final return of the poetry zombies, singing a dirge, turning at odd angles from each other for no apparent reason.

Antlia Pneumatica – by Anne Washburn, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll.

WITH: Rob Campbell (Adrian), Nat DeWolf (Len), Crystal Finn (Bama), April Matthis (Liz), Annie Parisse (Nina), Maria Striar (Ula), Skylar Dunn (Voice of Casey) and Azhy Robertson (Voice of Wally).

Scenic design by Rachel Hauck, costume design by Jessica Pabst, lighting design by Tyler Micoleau, sound design by Leah Gelpe, original music by Daniel Kluger; Megan Schwarz Dickert, production stage manager. Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater,416 West 42nd Street, (212) 279–4200, Through April 24. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.