THEATER: Taking a Second Look at The Antipodes at Signature Theatre


Josh Charles and Phillip James Brannon in The Antipodes at Signature Theatre. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

I was fortunate to have seen both The Flick and John in their original Sam Gold-directed productions, but in my typically ungrateful way, I wanted more. By then, I was besotted by Annie Baker’s writing, and I wished I could have seen each play and production more than once. When The Antipodes was announced, I was both ready and lucky. I grabbed a ticket for what had been scheduled as the closing weekend (it’s since been extended and is still playing)… and I also got a ticket for a critic’s preview, three weeks before, which I reviewed for Reclining Standards.

Candidly, Antipodes didn’t have the same engrossing effect on me as Baker’s previous plays—I admired it without loving it, and a second visit seemed unnecessary. In the end, though, I decided not to give my ticket away. I rarely have the luxury of seeing a New York production twice. I’m fascinated by the kind of micro-realistic detail that Baker and her directors seem to want from actors—would the same sense of freshness be possible a second time? And surely, I’d discover things I missed on first viewing.

I’m glad I saw Antipodes twice, and here are some take-aways from my recent revisit…

  • The biggest difference I noticed had to do with the audience response, and it confirmed some general theater wisdom. The first time I saw Antipodes, it had not yet been reviewed, and the audience clearly didn’t know what to think. The result was some faint, nervous giggling, but also a lot of awkward silence. My second visit—after Ben Brantley raved about the show in the New York Times—there was hearty laughter from the get-go… rather too much so, for a play that has a lot of comic elements, but a complex, very mixed tone. In many ways, the confused awkward vibe I sensed the first time feels more appropriate. But positive reviews mean a relaxed, enthusiastic, responsive audience.
  • The performances were much as I remembered them, and it was extraordinary to see how these very accomplished actors were able to essentially repeat the same sense of casual, spontaneous actions and reactions. A few of the actors seem to have grown in the roles. Josh Charles was even better this time—it was marvelous to watch him as he watched other characters, judging from their tiniest inflections how he was perceived by his colleagues around the writer’s table that is Antipodes single location.
  • In terms of actors, I was struck most of all by Will Patton’s performance as the head writer. He was the standout the first time around—funny, scary as hell, and totally unpredictable. Of course, having seen it once, some of the unpredictability was gone. But his take on the character had grown more specific, the choices clearer and bolder. By most standards, it was an even better performance the second time. And yet…
  • Paradoxically, I liked Patton better when he did less. He got tremendous audience reaction at the second performance—but I thought he’d pushed it too far toward comedy. I think a few others were playing more broadly, too. Did the audience’s primed-to-laugh responses incite the actors to find more comedic contours in their line readings and reactions—or did the actors relax into a more comfortable comedic style, which the audiences sense and appreciate? For me, it’s an unanswerable question.
  • Broadly speaking, I felt similarly about Baker’s writing both times—that the first hour of Antipodes is superbly imaginative and beautifully, subtly constructed… but it runs out of gas after that, and the remaining 45 minutes is a study in mounting weirdness and decreasing interest.
  • On the other hand, this time around I was able to get more sense of some over-arching themes. That the piece is about storytelling is obvious—but I came to appreciate how many nuances there are in Baker’s assessment—stories told by professionals and amateurs, children and adults… funny, happy, tragic, and everything in between. Stories that fill us with joy, and those that give voice to our darkest fears. Any writer will understand this.

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