Review: “The Antipodes” at the Signature Theatre, New York

Word on the street was that Annie Baker’s new play, The Antipodes, was a total bomb. Those new to her work and longtime fans alike are reporting that the work did not succeed in any way. Indeed, at the performance of the play that I attended, there was a cacophony of sighs of irritation during the show and a general sense of discontentment expressed by those milling about the lobby after the play ended. I understand their distaste, even outright animosity, towards the work, but I, for one, found it to be simply extraordinary. It’s a rarified experience, so much so that I would hesitate before actually recommending it to anyone. Those who find that they connect to The Antipodes will never forget it; those who don’t connect will wish they could.

Annie Baker, author of The Flick and John, has become rather infamous for her three-hour plays in which nothing much happens and half the runtime is complete silence. Therefore, it’s rather surprising to see that The Antipodes runs a mere hour and fifty minutes, without an intermission, and is a play that features comparatively little silence and enough action for a full season of television. Set in a conference room of sorts, the play concerns the efforts of six writers attempting to pitch an idea for a project in an unspecified medium (though film seems the most likely, based on the amount of money that appears to be at stake), coming up with ideas by telling stories, both real and fictional, to Sandy, the project’s assumed director or head-writer, while Brian, an assumed intern (almost nothing is specified, a fact which might clue you in on why so many are so averse to the play), takes notes of the stories being told. Also omnipresent is Sarah, the somewhat creepily kindly office receptionist, who takes lunch orders and is the de facto boss when Sandy is absent.

The play begins in a style closer to Baker’s previous hyper-naturalistic plays, with distinctly human patterns of speech and as much conversational filler as “important dialogue”, albeit with an unusual amount of characters, who all talk on top of each other, reminiscent of David Mamet if he were as interested in human speech as Baker is. At a certain point, though, a minuscule coup de theatre happens that will force you to readjust your preconceived notions of the play. Though almost none of the nine characters ever leave the stage and there are no blackouts or lighting effects of any kind, the action is not constant, but rather takes place over the course of several months, each moment blending into the next, with only small cues like the differing of outfits for Sarah or the previously mentioned coup (which involves lunch) extant to clue the audience in on the passage of time. This is not without purpose, effectively trapping the audience within the space and sharing the feeling of solitude and being trapped that the characters feel, especially as their story pitches become more and more desperate and the eventual success of the think tank seems less and less likely.

The trapping of the audience initially serves to critique the culture of the modern workplace, and Baker is very careful about which characters say what to which other characters. The cases and cases of La Croix sparkling water, the sterile set design, and the careful presence of women and people of color, make it seem like The Antipodes is really about capitalism, but the play becomes stranger and stranger as the evening wanes, and it soon becomes clear that Annie Baker has far more on her mind. I was initially surprised to see John, Baker’s previous play, incorporate a gnostic element, interested in exploring both the natural and supernatural, and I was convinced that the play represented a deviation rather than a paradigm shift. With The Antipodes, which embraces the same supernatural, gnostic element as John, it is now obvious that the metaphysical is not a passing interest for the author. All the better for audiences, as her grasp on the surreal and abstract is arguably as strong or stronger than any other author of the last century. The Antipodes is interested in people telling stories, the death of new original stories, and, eventually, the ultimate fate of mankind.

This eschatological and apocalyptic perspective makes The Antipodes at times overwhelmingly strange, to the point where a dissection of the thematic content is out of my own grasp after only one viewing of the play. Suffice to say that the connections that I was able to make terrified and astounded me, and the connections that I couldn’t make were possibly even more memorable. You’ll leave the theatre with more questions than answers, but will you ever be thankful that you have these questions.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the premiere production of The Antipodes, currently at the Signature Theatre in New York, is as gorgeous as the play itself. Annie Baker’s four previous plays have all been staged by Sam Gold, who is very much the “it” director of the moment, recently winning a Tony Award for his direction of Fun Home and having four productions open this season in New York, including A Doll’s House Part 2, which is still currently in previews on Broadway. Because of this, he was presumably unavailable to direct The Antipodes. The direction is taken over here by Lila Neugebauer, a relatively young upstart. I haven’t seen any of Gold’s stagings of Baker plays, but I can’t imagine how they could possibly be better than Neugebauer’s Antipodes. Her staging is both unendingly creative visually and features an ensemble cast with an almost impossible level of precision. Every one of the nine actors has a remarkable level of focus for the entirety of the production, to the point where one could spend a performance watching only one actor and be totally satisfied. The best member of the cast would be impossible to specify—everyone is ideally cast—, but Nicole Rodenburg, who plays Sarah, has the best role. She gives a monologue about a past experience involving her stepmother that might be the onstage moment of the year.  Laura Jellinek’s set, Kaye Voce’s costumes, and Tyler Micoleau’s lights are all awards-worthy, but Bray Poor’s sound design is most of note, exceedingly subtle in craft and unforgettable in experience.

The Antipodes is experimental, but it’s the kind of experiment that produces exactly the results hoped for. I don’t know how Annie Baker does it, but she leaves all other living authors in the dust with her astounding track record of plays. By my count, this is her third masterpiece in a row. The fact that she isn’t yet forty and probably has, at the very least, half a dozen more plays left to write singlehandedly makes the future of playwriting very very bright. The Antipodes suggests that the number of original stories left for humanity to tell may be smaller than we realize, but as long as Annie Baker is the one telling the stories, I will be listening.

The Antipodes plays at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre in New York City through June 11th. Tickets and information available here.

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