In the online edition of today’s Wall Street Journal, I report on the premiere of The Antipodes, Annie Baker’s new play. Here’s an excerpt.
* * *
Annie Baker, who won a Pulitzer Prize three years ago for “The Flick,” is one of America’s most highly praised young playwrights. Nevertheless, I had problems with “The Flick” and “John,” her last two plays, and bigger ones with “The Antipodes,” in which she plunges into the Sea of Confusion. Not that it’s hard to figure out what “The Antipodes” is about—we’ll get to that shortly—but its meaning is swaddled in thick layers of obscurantism which seem to exist, as is Ms. Baker’s wont, to reassure the audience that something important is happening on stage….
“The Antipodes” takes place in an anonymous corporate conference room around whose central table eight of the play’s characters sit. Sarah (Nicole Rodenburg), the ninth character, is an air-headed secretary who flits in and out at odd intervals, changing her jumpsuit for each entrance. Cases of LaCroix Sparkling Water, the trendy flavored seltzer, are stacked against one wall of the room, signaling that its occupants are hip. Sandy (Will Patton), the boss, is an aging businessman-hipster who wears (what else?) a baseball cap….
We are, it emerges, present at a Hollywood-style story conference, although this one also bears a strong resemblance to a group-therapy session. At Sandy’s discreetly threatening we’re-all-just-friends-here behest, the active participants (one person is in the room solely to take notes) swap “embarrassing stories” about their sex lives, the goal being to come up with raw material for…a movie? A miniseries? A video game? That’s never spelled out, although Sandy makes clear that the project is a big, big deal…
This is a potentially interesting situation, but Ms. Baker enacts it in her now-familiar stop-and-go minimalist manner, sprinkling the characters’ monologues with portentous pauses designed to give her deliberately banal dialogue the awkward feel of real-life conversation: “When I was sixteen I kind of uh…I put like half of it in this girl on a camping trip.” As a result, “The Antipodes,” like “The Flick” and “John” before it, proceeds at a glacial pace that seems to grow slower and slower as the play goes on and on…
In due course Sandy is called away to deal with a crisis whose dire-sounding details are vague and self-contradictory, asssuring his subordinates that what they’re doing matters: “These are dark times. Stories are a little bit of light that we can cup in our palms like votive candles to show us the way out of the forest.” No sooner does he leave than increasingly bizarre things start happening to the people in the room. Finally he returns, sans baseball cap and visibly shaken, and tells everybody that that they should go home and “think about going into a different line of work…Like maybe this is actually the worst possible time in the history of the world to be telling stories.”
Got it yet? If not, permit me to direct you to an interview posted on Signature Theatre’s website in which Ms. Baker informs us that “the election has made me think a lot about theatre, and my responsibilities as an artist, and, you know, the point of it all….In November I felt like maybe I didn’t want to make theatre anymore. Now I want to make it more than ever. It’s hard to figure out. The play reflects some of this.” What we have here, in other words, is an apocalyptic fantasy in which Donald Trump is the monster under the bed, lying in wait to gobble up all the gallant storytellers….
* * *
Read the whole thing here.