April is always a busy month for theater, and this year is no exception. But amidst the big-ticket Broadway openings (Six Degrees, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), fans of playwright Annie Baker—and I’m certainly among them—have been most excited by the premiere of her newest piece, The Antipodes, at off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre.
Not to suggest that there’s anything small-scale about Baker’s work; on the contrary, though both of her last two plays—The Flick and John—have chamber-sized casts, they are full of huge, provocative ideas. The Flick won a Pulitzer—very much deserved, despite some whining by creaky audience members that it went on too long and didn’t have enough to say. (The last is manifestly untrue—anyone who thinks The Flick isn’t monumental isn’t paying attention.)
Of course, each new play is exactly that—new. Even more so for Baker than most playwrights, because she seems to be reinventing herself every time. For me, her work is a non-stop fount of surprises, and I’ve tried hard to keep it that way, which means not reading reviews and promotional material in advance.
In the case of The Antipodes, that was easy—I saw one of the last previews, before reviews came out—and virtually the only advance word was that it was “about telling stories.” Also, that it ran just under two hours without an intermission. (This was a surprise: The Flick and John were each in three acts, and ran several hours.)
Watching the show, I felt certain that Baker fans would find some familiar themes. The Antipodes shares with The Flick a pitch-perfect sense of contemporary speech; an extraordinary eye for realistic detail (so much so that it often doesn’t look like a play at all); and a sense that Baker sees the entertainment industry as a larger and somewhat disturbing metaphor for America. What it shares with John is a ghostly, metaphysical undercurrent.
The Antipodes is, indeed, about telling stories—but I would say that, even more, it’s about writing, and especially writers. We, the audience, are silent observers, as a table full of them propose concepts for what seems to be a horror movie. In plot terms, that’s pretty much it.
I loved every minute of the first hour, which is full of Baker’s magical, mordent wit, and like the best of her work, constantly destabilizing. It’s not that the action isn’t clear—most of the time, it is, very. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this casual pitching of ideas by a table full of writers isn’t casual at all. The air crackles with scary subtext. That uneasiness takes human form in the character of Sandy, a head writer who says all the right things in terms of welcoming his younger protégés, yet somehow, we are wary. (Will Patton is brilliant in the role—in a near-flawless company of actors, he’s the standout.)
Director Lila Neugebauer’s production strikes the perfect naturalistic note… before departing from it. If you have any doubts about Baker’s tremendous craft, pay attention to the various tiny ways she marks transitions and the passage of time. There are many wonderful things in The Antipodes.
But as the show went on, I felt a sense of Baker losing her way. A monologue for one of the two female characters starts like gangbusters, but goes on too long—much the same could be said of The Antipodes as a whole. There’s also a kind of unseemly gloating in a successful playwright portraying team-writing for movies as close to the lowest circle of hell. The team of writers we see here may never achieve Baker’s level of skill and success, but surely they would understand the value of cuts. In The Flick and John, three hours seemed to fly by. In The Antipodes, we have a one-act that its table-full of writers would know needs some judicious editing.
The Antipodes plays through June 4 at New York’s Signature Theatre. For more information, visit the website.