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Antlia Pneumatica

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Rob Campbell and Annie Parisse
Photo by Joan Marcus

Kids want to grow up to be free of boundaries and restrictions; adults who want to be kids again typically desire that because they've learned what the boundaries and restrictions are and no longer find them as appetizing as once they did. In her cluttered new play for Playwrights Horizons at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Antlia Pneumatica, Anne Washburn captures this unique function of getting older and getting (maybe) smarter by zooming in on a group of adults who are faced with reexamining their youth and discovering that it isn't all they once thought it was. And in doing so, she unlocks some fascinating, complicated feelings that she also sets herself up to ruin.

One thing at a time, though. More important for now is the psychology at work here. A late-thirtysomething/early-fortysomething man named Sean has died without leaving a will, but in a file marked "When I Die" left among his possessions, he expressed a desire to be buried in his former home in the Texas Hill Country. With no one else willing or able to carry out his request, his friends from his late adolescence and early adulthood have gathered to scatter his ashes and throw a good, old-fashioned food-stuffed wake in his honor.

But when Nina (Annie Parisse), Liz (Nina's sister, played by April Matthis), Ula (Maria Striar), and Len (Nat DeWolf) convene at a ranch to see through Sean's wishes, they absorb themselves instead in memories of what they've left behind. They reminisce about the dusty landscape, share stories from their childhoods, argue about meal preparation, and disagree about the absent friends who, for better or worse, still inhabit their inner beings. (Was Nina dating Adam that one time 14 years ago, or was it still Trent? And is Don selling real estate in Corpus Christie, or did he die in a drug-related car accident?) Each one of them is, in a way, an ideal adult: informed by the past but not controlled by it.

Almost as soon as this is established, the wrench in the works appears in the form of Adrian (Rob Campbell), Nina's long-ago flame who she hasn't seen in more than a decade, before she married and had two children. And he seems poised to inspire her to ditch her unsatisfying present and build a more interesting future—except, is her present that unsatisfying? And is there a future to be had with Adrian? In both cases, the answer would appear to be no.

Annie Parisse, Crystall Finn, April Matthis,
Nat DeWolf, and Maria Striar
Photo by Joan Marcus

Rest easy: Washburn does not devote her play to this well-worn-down question. Adrian serves more as a catalyst for examining how Nina and those around her deal with their lives, not as a pure object of home-wrecking lust. In fact, Adrian is unusually contemplative, even thoughtful, as he explains the mysteries of the cosmos to Nina while they're out viewing the stars—and, specifically, the faint constellation from which the play gets its title.

"When we know that four stars have been slung together and called an air pump," Adrian says in describing it, "we realize that, really, the whole sky is up for grabs. We make it all up, everything we believe in. And what we make, we can unmake. And remake. I find it... liberating."

"Okay, yes," Nina admits. "Except the stars are real. The stars are actually happening. They're facts."

"Are they? By the time we see them, they're facts in the past. For all we know, all they are now is just... light. Visual noise. Incident. Nothing."

The absence of permanence, the idea that you can take control of the uncontrollable—this is where Antlia Penumatica, like its namesake, lives, and where it's most successful. When Washburn is playing, ruminating on the nature of nature as it applies to the four friends, Adrian, and a sixth, late arrival named Bama (Crystal Finn), she crafts an evening that's at once quiet and disquieting, as beautiful for what it contains as unsettling for what it doesn't, and that wraps you, gently but subtly, in the too-real concerns of this shimmering sextet.

But, as with her last Playwrights Horizons offering, Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play (from 2013), Washburn has trouble gauging when she goes too far. Eventually she begins confusing physics and metaphysics, and hints at supernatural forces driving the action in ways that defuse the sparks she ignites earlier on. It's as though she wants to explain both nothing and everything, and still get the full benefits of either choice made in isolation, but the more she attempts that, the more we lose sight of the spirit that makes this group worth watching.

She also falters in trying to obliterate lines between the figurative and the factual by having whole scenes recorded and played over the loudspeakers, as though they're echoing in the mind, while nothing at all happens onstage. Intriguing though this concept may be, and related to her central conceit of a disconnection with what's outside the here and now, it stops the action dead in its tracks whenever it occurs, and it occurs pretty often. A handful of songs, which Washburn wrote with Daniel Kluger, appear similarly aimed to satisfy some Brechtian urge, but neither contribute to nor successfully juxtapose the atmosphere Washburn so ably conjures in the script itself.

The pacing, too, is Ice Age glacial; director Ken Rus Schmoll could have perked this up a bit, but so much of it is baked into the script, it's unlikely that, even at full speed, most of the dialogue wouldn't have the rhythmic and melodic cadence of a lullaby. The disembodied ranch house set (by Rachel Hauck) is the proper locale for the action as it's been rendered, and it's generally well lighted by Tyler Micoleau, though shrouding Nina and Adrian in near-total darkness during the constellation scene is, like much else here, overkill.

As for the actors, they're all decent, if overblown in one way or another. (Campbell pushes the rebellious bad boy bit beyond its limits, DeWolf's geniality is amplified enough to become grating, Finn mixes up jittery and excited, and so on.) Only Parisse, the rare performer who can simultaneously project earthy and sophisticated, believably occupies both the fantasy and real worlds in which Nina must wander. Her face, if not drawn, looks sallow, and her eyes distracted, as though she can't help but focus on something just beyond her field of vision. Yet she's locked into the moment, too, as the most "comfortable" and aware of the mourners. With her warm yet reluctant portrayal, Parisse lets us see how Nina has the most to gain and the most to lose from the journeys a loved one's death inspires.

Antlia Pneumatica isn't about death, of course—that's merely one weapon in the playwright's arsenal. She'd do better with fewer, making it easier her to wage her intended targeted attack on our notions of how and why we dwell in or let go of the experiences that define us. Memorable though this play may be, it has too much to hang on to, which, as Washburn's characters could tell her, can be worse than having too little.

Antlia Pneumatica
Through April 24
Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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