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Once upon a time last week, I believe I was kidnapped, hoisted onto a flying carpet, and magically transported to Annie Baker’s new play, The Antipodes, at the Signature Center. There I saw eight people sitting around a conference table. Six of them are — or at least, seem to be — writers. The seventh is their crusty boss, Sandy (Will Patton), who is of course answerable to bigger unseen bosses, and the eighth his soft-spoken assistant, Brian (Brian Miskell), who mainly stares into his laptop while noting down what the others say. A ninth person, a cheerfully subservient secretary named Sarah (Nicole Rodenburg), keeps them supplied with snacks and info while manning the phones in an outer office, likewise unseen.
Once I got there, so much happened that I can’t begin to describe it all. Or maybe nothing whatever happened, because now, when I try to put my finger on specific events, they tend to melt away and flow into one another. The Antipodes has a beginning, a middle, and an end — Baker is slyly skillful about such things — but spectators who complained that “nothing happens” in her earlier plays, like John and The Flick, will probably be even less happy with this one.
In a conventional play, when six or eight people are confined to a room for a long period of time, tensions arise, alliances form, characters engage in either open conflict or shared feelings. Not here. The writers — if they are that — remain only amicable colleagues. As they tell stories, or discuss telling stories, under Sandy’s aegis, we learn, or learn to infer, a few things about each of them. Though Sandy remains generally close-mouthed, we actually learn more about him — ailing wife, troubled home life — than any of his crew. But no dramatic culmination of any usual kind rises out of their sessions; we never even learn what sort of “project” Sandy has brought them together to develop. For all I know, they could be futurologists spitballing for NASA.
Some small events do occur. One participant (Danny McCarthy) is removed from the group, for reasons we can only guess at. Another (Josh Hamilton) inexplicably has an ongoing problem about his employment status. The onset of a major storm, conveyed through Sarah’s reports and sound effects, tests everyone’s mettle, producing a marathon story session, minus Sandy, in the middle of which the participants all nod out, except for one who goes through remarkable changes. In the end, no stories are born, though an infinitude of stories has been broached and left to burgeon in our minds — they include everything from a gigantic meld of the world’s creation myths down to tiny anecdotes of childhood fears and adolescent sexuality.
It’s a paradoxical, puzzling, compellingly hypnotic work. What, exactly, are they doing there? Why is one of them arbitrarily removed? Why does nobody react to the fantastic story that Sarah unexpectedly volunteers? Baker doesn’t explicate; she lets her characters speak their piece and leaves us to parse the results. As icing on this cake of confusion, she plays dramaturgic tricks on the seemingly naturalistic context. At one point, for instance, she shows the passage of several days by having Sarah announce the start of the day several times, overlapping, in a single speech. Like the weird tales that periodically spring up in the conversation, these abrupt stylistic shifts send jolts through the ostensibly everyday, laid-back tone of both Baker’s text and Lila Neugebauer’s production. We apparently see ordinary people going through an ordinary everyday reality, except that they aren’t and it isn’t. The incessant feeling of an impending cataclysm seems impossible to shake off. Neugebauer’s actors — those not yet named are Philip James Brannon, Josh Charles, Danny Mastrogiorgio, and Emily Cass McDonnell — all catch the play’s eerie dualistic quality with perfect pitch. Despite their flesh-and-blood tangibility, I can’t escape the persistent feeling that I dreamt the whole thing.
Or, maybe, I was transported, courtesy of Baker’s flying carpet, to a spot antipodal on the globe to any usual New York theater venue. I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling: The audience leaving the Signature’s Linney Stage after the press performance lingered, clustering in little knots, in the half-darkened lobby, murmuring to each other, trying to sort out what they’d just experienced; a member of the house staff told me this happens regularly at The Antipodes. It’s not common in our theatergoing; the last such occasion I recall was Albee’s The Goat, fifteen years ago. We need stories. Baker, offering us a profusion of them, also offers the scary suggestion that our culture may have worked through all its available stories, that the end of our storytelling has come. But what can that mean except — that we begin again.
Martin Sherman’s Gently Down the Stream (Public Theater) is also preoccupied with storytelling, but Sherman takes a much more standardized approach. He invents a fictional gay icon, an elderly cabaret pianist from New Orleans who accompanied the legendary Mabel Mercer in her last years, and has him played, in Sean Mathias’s production, by a living gay icon, Harvey Fierstein. Then he invents a youngish gay Londoner (Gabriel Ebert), who pursues the icon out of lust, not for his person but for the history he embodies. This discomfiting contrivance makes both the stories being told and the new chapter of gay history being lived seem a little predictable, a little too issue-bound and detached from life. Fierstein, doing his best to transmute his classic Noo Yawk accent into a Big Easy drawl, gives his iconic presence full play; Ebert, always convincing, listens here with convincing eagerness; and Christopher Sears is effective as the brash youngster who, non-malevolently, disrupts their temporary paradise. But the enterprise seems hidebound and pat; the vibrancy that gave gay life its meaning has vanished from the bare recollections pasted in this dramatic scrapbook.
480 West 42nd Street
Through June 4
Gently Down the Stream
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Through May 21