In Anne Washburn’s eerie Antlia Pneumatica — now at Playwrights Horizons in a typically elegant production by Ken Rus Schmoll — a group of old friends, now in early middle age, reassemble at a remote Texas estate to throw a wake for a deceased member of their circle. It’s a place they used to spend a lot of time when they were younger, wilder, and freer. The family home of sisters Nina (Annie Parisse) and Liz (April Matthis), this pastoral setting offers panoramic views of the night sky and a bottomless swimming hole: competing glimpses of infinity. At first, Washburn seems to set the stage for wistful autumnal reminiscence (her premise uncannily resembles The Big Chill), but she soon lights out for richer and stranger terrain.
In this primal scene, the friends’ minds drift to natural cycles: births, deaths, the inevitable loss of adolescent experience’s rough intensity amid the myopic practicalities of adulthood. Now burdened with children, careers, and marriages, their lives are much more prosaic. Like the patch of semi-starved pecan trees on the estate, poised between water and desert, they’re caught between the lush flourishing of youth and death’s sere blast.
But one time-denying reunion promises to carbonate the atmosphere: Adrian (Rob Campbell), an alluring bad-boy type who disappeared from Nina’s life many years before, has decided to attend the festivities. After a strange arrival — he appears to walk out of the desert — Adrian infiltrates Nina’s dreams. She, and we, begin to lose our footing in reality. Life and death, sleeping and waking, inside and outside: Washburn’s play blends binaries, confusing realms.
Most of the play takes place around a kitchen island: making pie, arguing about recipes, discussing old stories and new concerns. As the play goes on, that little island, which Rachel Hauck’s set frames with the tangled foliage of pecan trees, and later, with an almost oppressive night sky, becomes an image of the oasis of human life amid nature’s heedless cycles. Nina’s daughter, heard in voiceover, confronts mortality for the first time when her mother kills an ant. We hear a soaring choir sing a dirge for the fallen bug. When life is always being extinguished around us, Washburn asks, how can we insist on the importance of our own existence?
Amid such looming questions, Schmoll’s production finds grace in the details: Falling pecans thud on the ground, punctuating the play’s concern with mortality as a constant feature of the natural world; steam wafts from morning coffee, reminding us of the consolation in quotidian comforts.
Throughout, cooking serves as a model of human society, transforming nature’s raw material into collective survival. Meanwhile, a recurring piece of old western lore about “bachelors” — feral men who never made peace with that society — hints at civilization’s opposite, something wild and undomesticated, forever threatening chaos. (Guessing at the surprise twist is part of the pleasure of the play.) We’re left retroactively wondering what was real and what was reverie, as that most basic of natural laws — the hard division between life and death — appears to dissolve.
Washburn takes her title from an obscure constellation, named by an eccentric French scientist, that gathers a bunch of cast-off stars into something vaguely resembling an air pump. It’s a metaphor for the simultaneous arbitrariness and preciousness of friendship, and also for the fragile ways we perishable human beings impose meaning on the world. The stars, radiant and unfeeling, don’t care what we call them.
Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll
416 West 42nd Street