April 29, 2017

Annie Baker Contemplates the Vagaries of Storytelling in "The Antipodes"

Like most talented playwrights these days, Annie Baker has no doubt been asked to spend some time in a writers' room for one of the prestige TV shows. But on the basis of her new play The Antipodes, which has just been extended through June 11 at Signature Theatre, she hasn't liked that idea.  Nor it seems has she liked all the questions about what her plays are about or about why she writes them the way she does.

The Antipodes (the dictionary defines the word antipodes to mean "places diametrically opposed to one another on the globe") is set entirely in a conference room where six guys and a woman sit around a large table in expensive Aeron chairs and try to impress their boss with various suggestions for narratives. 

Intermittently, a female assistant comes in to take food orders, which magically (I'm not kidding, I still can't figure out the sleight of hand) appear on the table. It's clear that days go by because the assistant's outfits change and at one point, a severe storm forces the group to spend the night in the office. But the stories—some intimate, others universally familiar—never go anywhere.

And that seems precisely the point that Baker, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning and plot-defying play The Flick, wants to make (click here to read an interview with her). In fact, the character who tells the most complete and conventional tale is thrown out of the room. For this is a play devoted to the belief that a good play, an engaging play, doesn't need to have a traditional narrative. 

At the same time, Baker also understands that we humans have an innate need to be told stories. It's our way of making sense of who and why we are. To tell their stories, Baker's characters invoke all kinds of rituals, from the mundane (chugging cans of La Croix soda) to the mystical (you need to see this yourself).

The play runs about two hours without an intermission, which is short for Baker. And even though not much happens, it is funny and even suspenseful. Under the deft direction of Lila Neugebauer, the acting is also terrific.

Josh Charles may be the most familiar face in the cast from his days on TV's "The Good Wife" (I actually bumped into him at Sardi's and got to tell him how much I enjoyed his performance in the play) but this is an ensemble piece and each actor creates a distinct individual recognizable to anyone who's ever been trapped in the purgatory of an office meeting. And maybe the decisively enigmatic The Antipodes is about that too.

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