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The Antipodes

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 23, 2017

The Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus

With her gripping new play The Antipodes, which just opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Annie Baker considers one of the artist's eternal dilemmas: What happens when you give everything you have to the process of creation and it's simply not enough? If people want you to—no, scratch that. If people expect—nope, still not right. If people need you to tell a story and you can't, what does that mean for you? What does it mean for them? And, really, what does it mean for the world?

If it seems silly to you to ascribe such titanic importance to the (relatively) simple act of storytelling, that's understandable, but don't expect to hold on to that prejudice for long. In the relatively short running time of The Antipodes (just under two intermission-free hours), Baker, her director Lila Neugebauer, and their cast are remarkably good at ramping up the urgency. Though the action takes place only in a single locale, a conference room (crisply designed, with soft gray walls and a sharp wooden table for 10, by Laura Jellinek), there are plenty of hints that everywhere else is falling apart and that maybe—just maybe—what's happening here can stem the tide.

Not that most of the people involved see it that way. For most of them, it's just another job, albeit a prestigious one. Their leader, Sandy (Will Patton), was the mastermind behind Heathens, a popular TV series (or maybe movie?) that's described as "a success in every way," and is now aiming to replicate his accomplishment through the same means. To that end he's recruited two of his previous writers, Dave (Josh Charles) and Danny M. (Danny Mastrogiorgio), as well as four new ones, Adam (Phillip James Brannon), Josh (Josh Hamilton), Eleanor (Emily Cass McDonnell), and, uh, another Danny M. (Danny McCarthy), who, for convenience sake, is referred to as Danny M2. Brian (Brian Miskell) takes notes on his laptop; Sandy's assistant, Sarah (Nicole Rodenburg), takes lunch and snack orders, and delivers word from the outside.

The group's goal is to brainstorm and share their own personal experiences to craft the story that will serve as the foundation for this new project. Their first task involves naming any kind of monster that isn't a dwarf, elf, or troll. Then they swap anecdotes about losing their virginity; imagine the sorts of fantastic beasts that could exist on the opposite side of their fictional planet; muse on their competing perceptions of time, from two-dimensional graphs to spirals to the Hindu concept of yugas (four ages that subtly influence human behavior); and so on.

As the days and weeks pass, it appears as though the exercises aren't yielding much fruit, and the tales become weirder and more wiry; Sarah even relates one she insists happened between her and her stepmother and stepsister, that bears an astonishing resemblance to a children's fairy tale. They try new exercises to stoke their flames, even as their numbers slowly thin, requests aren't addressed (there's a lingering argument over whether Josh is even a real employee), and Sandy gets caught up in a series of misfortunes that mirror those of the angering environment that's roaring everywhere but the writer's room. And what's with the former employee who, one day, literally just vanished into nothingness?

Things become less and less normal as the play unfolds, yet Baker keeps them anchored to a universe we recognize; their plights may be unfamiliar, but the demons they're fighting are all too familiar. Even when things spiral completely into craziness (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, correlates with the characters' nadir of imagination), a set of rules applies to keep nudging us and them forward. Like Baker's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick and, to a lesser extent, her John (which also premiered at the Signature in 2015), words and occurrences have conflicting layers of meaning that both throw into question everything that happens and provides answers that, though occasionally cryptic, tell you far more than facts ever could.

These artists go all the way with it, though, and that's a big part of why The Antipodes works so well. Baker's relentless writing leaves you feeling as trapped and as vulnerable as the writers. Neugebauer's ultrasmooth staging covers epic time spans in seconds, and includes some of the best non-special special effects I've ever seen. (I became obsessed, for example, with food containers that appeared out of thin air.) And the physical production, which also includes surprisingly witty costumes for Kaye Voyce (most of Sarah's many wardrobe changes got entrance laughter) and superbly subtle lighting from Tyler Micoleau and sound from Bray Poor, adroitly captures the impossible notion of trying to bottle inspiration.

Because the entire cast is excellent, singling out any is a challenge; each rips through choice moments with masterful skill. Charles's hardened veteran, McCarthy's soft-skinned newcomer, Hamilton's confused go-getter, McDonnell's pungent earnestness, Mastrogiorgio's brash veracity, and Brannon's plainspoken dream-spinner get the most play, and dole out bathos, hilarity, and chills in equal quantities. Miskell's focused Brian, Patton's battle-scarred Sandy, and Rodenburg's dopey-efficient Sarah give you more to puzzle out, but pay significant dividends, especially later on. Let's just say that everyone has a crucial role to play in the development of this project.

There's a lot that can be said about what results, but nothing should be—Baker, as per her usual, builds the plot and its surrounding suspense until the final seconds, so pulling out any one brick would cause the whole to collapse. For a play this inventive, this fascinating, and this good, that's a crime for which I'm not willing to risk prosecution. Besides, there's an excellent chance that my interpretation (tied tightly to our current political scene, for the record) might not be yours; Baker says so much, and says it so boldly, that the specifics may well vary from hearer to hearer. That's typically how great stories function.

But what's undeniable about The Antipodes is its confidence in the power of narratives to transform hearts, minds, and even societies. This is made most clear in the longest, most vivid, and most unhinged of the many stories we hear, which Adam relates in a fit of exhausted exasperation. The "great father" of his conception kindles wonders from his mind, which lead to creation and destruction beyond what anyone can envision, but which define both the details and the nature of our existence. Anyone who creates knows that power, and knows it can be harnessed for good, evil, or anything in between. Sometimes the act of harnessing is a failure; it's a risk anyone in that zone has to be willing to take if they want to succeed. Whether Baker's characters succeed or fail is open to some kind of debate. But The Antipodes, for what it says and what it allows you to discover yourself, is a rip-roaring success that puts Heathens—and most other plays this season—to shame.

The Antipodes
Through June 4
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: