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Annie Baker’s new work is described in publicity materials as “a play about people telling stories about telling stories.” So it’s all the more ironic — the main joke, really — that The Antipodes, being given its world premiere at the Signature Theater, doesn’t actually have a story. Fans of the playwright’s earlier works — including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick and John — will find much to admire in this deliberately ambiguous effort, while others are likely to be bemused or, worse, frustrated.
Set in a conference room dominated by a massive wooden table and wheeled chairs, with boxes of soda being the sole adornment, the play covers a series of meetings conducted by baseball cap-wearing boss Sandy (Will Patton) and his team of, well, we never really find out. They seem to be participating in creative brainstorming sessions for an unspecified project that, judging from Sandy’s opening admonition that there be “no dwarves or elves or trolls,” involves the fantasy genre.
The participants include Sandy’s assistant Brian (Brian Miskell), who takes copious notes on his laptop; two Dannys, identified as “Danny M1” (Danny Mastrogiorgio) and “Danny M2” (Danny McCarthy); Eleanor (Emily Cass McDonnell), who keeps her hands occupied knitting a sweater; Dave (Josh Charles, late of The Good Wife), a company veteran who effusively praises his job; Adam (Phillip James Brannon), the quietist of the bunch; and newcomer Josh (Josh Hamilton), whose persistent requests for an ID card constitute a running gag. The meetings are frequently interrupted by bubbly secretary Sarah (Nicole Rodenburg), who takes food orders and whose ever-changing assortment of slinky dresses signifies the passage of time.
Describing the meeting room as a “sacred space” in which the participants can rest assured that they’re operating in a “cone of silence,” Sandy enthusiastically tells the group, “We can change the world, and we can make a shitload of money.” To achieve those goals, he encourages his employees to share stories about their lives, such as describing their first sexual experiences, the worst thing that ever happened to them and their deepest regret. The ensuing anecdotes related are often deeply personal and sometimes painful to listen to, such as Danny M1’s graphic account of the physical effects of a sexually transmitted disease.
Not all the participants are enthusiastic about what they’re asked to do. Especially Danny M2, who, after telling a long story about his discomfort tending to the chickens on a farm when he was a teenager, confesses that “it doesn’t feel real … it feels misleading.”
He adds, “I guess I’ve always felt that my personal life is the part of my life that I don’t want to turn into a story.” So when Sarah informs him shortly thereafter that Sandy would like to see him in his office, it isn’t hard to guess what happens next.
The play features many dark comedic touches, such as a video conference call with an unspecified but clearly important figure that is hampered by garbled transmissions and for which the team dons silly-looking virtual reality-type shades. There are also foreboding elements, such as Sandy’s frequent references to personal crises at home and the group’s nervously awaiting an approaching violent storm. The proceedings become increasingly surreal and mystical, especially when a bare-chested Brian dons an animal skin and conducts a mysterious ritual while the others are asleep.
At one point the various participants talk about the types of stories that exist in the world, each one describing them differently. Sandy, meanwhile, assures them that that what they’re doing is important. “We need stories. As a culture,” he explains. “It’s what we live for.”
That message comes through loud and clear in the play, but the obliqueness eventually proves frustrating. Despite its amusingly pungent dialogue and the expert performances by the ensemble, The Antipodes, which runs nearly two hours without an intermission, ultimately feels as stifling as being trapped in a conference room during an interminable meeting. Director Lila Neugebauer (The Wolves) works hard to overcome the material’s inherently static nature, but there’s only so much excitement to be gleaned from watching the characters swivel around in their chairs.
As always, Baker’s writing proves provocative and insightful. But she seems to be straining too hard here for a significance that feels unearned. This play about storytelling might have benefited from having an actual story. Or at least some dwarves or elves or trolls.
Cast: Phillip James Brannon, Josh Charles, Josh Hamilton, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Danny McCarthy, Emily Cass McDonnell, Brian Miskell, Will Patton, Nicole Rodenburg
Playwright: Annie Baker
Director: Lila Neugebauer
Set designer: Laura Jellinek
Costume designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting designer: Tyler Micoleau
Sound designer: Bray Poor
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Presented by Signature Theatre
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