April 9, 2016

"Antlia Pneumatica" is as Odd as Its Name

Your mood when you walk into a theater can have a lot to do with what you think of a show when you walk out.  And so perhaps because I've been wrestling with some of the issues—the meaning of friendship, how to reconcile who I was in the past with who I've become and how to deal with the inevitability of death—that Anne Washburn is trying to work out in her oddly-named new play Antlia Pneumatica, I was willing to forgive the play's considerable shortcomings.

Running at Playwrights Horizons through April 24, Antlia Pneumatica (the name is taken from an obscure constellation that is said to resemble an air pump) has been likened to "The Big Chill" because, like that iconic 1983 movie, it deals with a group of college friends who have reunited some 20 years later for the funeral of one of their own.

None of the play's mourners have been in recent touch with the deceased but his will has requested that they come together and bury him at the remote family home of Nina and Liz, the two sisters who were once the center of their cluster.

The dominant piece in Rachel Hauck's simple but elegant set is a large kitchen island around which the erstwhile friends—the sisters, a spiky woman named Ula and a menschy guy named Len—gather to eat, drink, prepare more food (particularly pies; with the dessert-making title character in the new musical Waitress, this is a big season for pies) and to reminisce. In the background are pecan trees, whose nuts occasionally fall to the ground (click here to read more about the design).

The plot, such as it is, revolves around whether Nina, happily married and the mother of two young kids, whom we never see but whose voices we hear (kudos to Leah Gelpe's eerie sound design) will hook up with her old boyfriend Adrian, who has mysteriously arrived on foot, claiming car trouble down the road and faulty cellphone reception that kept him from calling for help.

The acting is uneven but it's always a pleasure to see Annie Parisse onstage and she anchors this production with a smart yet heartfelt performance as Nina. And Crystal Finn provides a blast of hilarity in the role of the high-energy Bama, even though she's given far more exposition than any character can comfortably carry.

But the real problem is that the play's aims are murky. Washburn lines up her issues but then she and her frequent collaborator director Ken Rus Schmoll allow them to meander through conversations about astronomy, philosophy, and grief (click here to read an interview with the playwright).

Knowing more about the guy who died and the relationship each of the mourners had to him might have helped to root us in the story. Leaving out the parts about the sisters' famous dad and eccentric mom might have kept the focus on the main topics at hand. In some ways, Antlia Pneumatica seems like a draft instead of a finished play.

As the characters nattered on about one thing after another, the audience at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended got more and more restless. The man next to me noisily opened a pack of cookies and shared them with his wife. Another hissed loudly that he thought the play was nonsense.  And the elderly man next to him kept clacking his cane against his chair, as though he wanted to leave but didn't know if he could make it to the door in the dark.

The audiences at Playwrights have a reputation for being prickly. So many subscribers and members wrote to the company to express their annoyance with Annie Baker's equally non-conventional play The Flick (which later won the Pulitzer Prize) that the company's artistic director Tim Sanford actually issued a public explanation about why he'd chosen to do that play (click here to read what he said). 

Now, the reaction to Antlia Pneumatica makes me think that the company needs to program more conventional fare that will appeal to its subscribers and members or to amp up its marketing so that it can bring in the kind of theatergoers who are more likely to be in the mood for ambitious shows and willing to stick it out whether those shows succeed or, as in this case, disappoint.

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