Theatre Review – The Antipodes by Annie Baker (Off-Broadway, New York)

 

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I was very much looking forward to seeing Annie Baker’s latest play off-Broadway during my recent New York trip for two reasons. One being that due to life getting in the way, I’d missed the London runs of two of her previous plays and the other being the fact that one of my favourite actors, Josh Charles, was a member of the cast!

Those familiar with Annie Baker’s work will know that her plays tend to be rather abstract and The Antipodes is no exception, being a play that leaves you thinking about it after you leave and I was pleased to see it twice in order to digest it properly.

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The cast of The Antipodes. Photo source: Joan Marcus

Set entirely in a conference room in an unspecified location in the States, this one act play is a story about telling stories, as we watch a group of writers trying to come up with the next great story; in this scenario for, perhaps, a new television show (although even this isn’t certain from Baker’s text). Over the 115 minutes, they share experiences from their lives, random stories they’ve heard from others, or random facts they’ve read online, all with the goal of finding a story that their boss, Sandy, likes. Just as long as it isn’t dwarves, elves or trolls.

This play won’t appeal to everyone (particularly those who need a clear plot when they go to the theatre) and I imagine those in the script-writing business will connect with it more than the rest of us, but I really enjoyed and was fascinated by its quirkiness. It makes you question how we communicate with one another and how it requires far more work to get right than we may realise (feeding in to the difficulties in communication, I loved the scene in which they try miserably to teleconference with the powers that be!). You learnt more than you might think about the nine individuals in the room by hearing their stories, but also by watching their reactions to the stories told by others. There were those who were happy to share even their most intimate stories, while others struggled to be quite so open, as you observe their various personalities as their never-ending brainstorming session stretches from days to months.

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Josh Charles & Phillip James Brannon. Photo source: Joan Marcus

There is also a lot of humour to be found in The Antipodes (although I sensed, at times, some members of my audience were laughing because others were, rather than because they themselves found it funny). It was the range of humorous moments that I liked, as Baker has written moments that are obviously funny, but also moments that are more subtle in this respect, as well as moments that are so bizarre, you cannot help but laugh.

I loved how Baker and director Lila Neugebauer achieved the passage of time during the play, with scenes bleeding in to the next, giving the play the feel that it is in a time all its own, crucial in a play in which how we think about time is a key discussion point (vertical? horizontal? a spiral?). There were also some time passing markers that seemed to creep up on me – for one, I have no idea where the group’s various takeaway containers kept appearing from!

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Brian Miskell & Emily Cass McDonnell. Photo source: Joan Marcus

The cast here are a fantastic team, who together bring so much depth to the material. Will Patton’s boss is a man of few words and who often makes his point by saying nothing at all. I’m not in the writing industry, but from the laughter around me, I sense that this portrayal is one very recognisable to those who are! The cast are all excellent, from Josh Charles’ more confident Dave, to Emily Cass McDonnell’s performance as the sole female voice in this writers’ room (a striking comment on sexism in the industry I assume).

However, one of the highlights for me has to be Nicole Rodenburg’s portrayal of Sandy’s personal assistant Sarah. Constantly in and out of the conference room, she is our link to the outside world and is a constant source of comedy, from her long, drawn-out way of speaking, to her multiple costume changes (I lost count, which only adds to your disorientation of how much time has passed), to her contributions to the discussions in the room itself. The scene in which she recalls a story from her childhood, which has a Brothers Grimm-like quality, in a serious, deadpan manner, before getting back to the matter of lunch orders is truly brilliant.

You only have until Saturday to see this play at the Signature Theatre and I’d definitely say it’s worth the effort. As I’ve already mentioned, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, being a bit too weird for some (I admit the more tribal scene towards the end was perhaps too weird for me), but if you are someone who loves strong acting and hearing stories, from the mundane to the fantastical, then do try and pick up a ticket.

The Antipodes continues at the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Romulus Linney Theatre (480, West 42nd Street) until this Saturday 11th June 2017. Although sold out, $40 rush tickets are sold each morning and as there is no admittance once it starts, it’s definitely worth seeing if you can fill any vacant seats just before curtain up, by joining the waitlist an hour before. For more information, visit the website here.

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