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Playwright Anne Washburn has been acclaimed for such experimental, stylistically diverse works as Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play and The Internationalist. Her latest effort, receiving its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons, is at times similarly inventive in its approach. So it’s ironic that what Antlia Pneumatica most strongly suggests is the voice of a naturalistic writer struggling to break free.
The basic premise — familiar from many plays and films, most notably The Big Chill — concerns the reunion of a group of friends who haven’t seen each other for many years, on the occasion of the death of a former companion. The play is set in the Texas Hill Country vacation home of Nina (Annie Parisse) and her sister Liz (April Matthis), who have reunited to host a wake for their old friend Sean, who died suddenly in New York.
Also present are the genial Len (Nat DeWolf) and acerbic Ula (Maria Striar), as well as late- arriving Adrian (Rob Campbell), who explains that he had to walk for an hour after his car broke down. He and Nina, who haven’t seen each other for 16 years, have a romantic history, although she’s now married with two young children. The last to show up is Sean — well, his ashes, at least — contained in a white cardboard box.
To a significant degree, Antlia Pneumatica, whose title is inspired by an obscure constellation, has a fairly conventional feel. The characters engage in witty, sometimes pointed bantering, over such issues as where to scatter the remains of Sean. Memories are dredged up, feelings rise to the surface and the romantic tension between Nina and Adrian, who says he’s not in a relationship, becomes palpable. And yes, the action, set in a kitchen, also features plenty of food preparation.
But it’s also evident that things are not quite as they seem. Long chunks of dialogue, including scenes involving Nina’s children (voiced by Skylar Dunn and Azhy Robertson), are heard but not seen. When Nina and Adrian have a lengthy, ethereal conversation about the constellations, as well as their shared past, we see only their silhouetted figures under the nighttime stars.
Only with the belated arrival of another friend, the aptly named, heavily Southern-accented Bama (Crystal Finn), do the playwright’s true intentions become fully apparent. An M. Night Shyamalan-style supernatural twist is introduced that upends our perceptions of everything that’s come before. The revelation is jarring, not so much for its spookiness but rather for the perfunctory manner of the storytelling. That the proceedings are tonally inconsistent and the plotting full of holes only adds to the overall frustration.
That’s a shame, because the play is enjoyable for long stretches, thanks to its witty dialogue and well-drawn characterizations. Under the ambitious direction of Ken Rus Schmoll — love the effect of pecans noisily dropping onto the stage from the tree branches overhead! — the actors deliver fine performances. Parisse is particularly endearing as the romantically confused Nina and Campbell is engaging as the enigmatic, soulful Adrian.
Venue: Playwrights Horizons, New York
Cast: Maria Striar, Annie Parisse, April Matthis, Nat DeWolf, Crystal Finn, Rob Campbell
Playwright: Anne Washburn
Director: Ken Rus Schmoll
Set designer: Rachel Hauck
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting designer: Tyler Micoleau
Sound designer: Leah Gelpe
Presented by Playwrights Horizons
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