The Antipodes: EW stage review
“Every single one of you was changed by a story,” says one of the characters in The Antipodes, “or else you wouldn’t be here.”
For many in the audience at Signature Theatre, that axiom is likely literally true. The stories of playwright Annie Baker are the reason why this world premiere has generated strong interest and extended its closing date (now May 28). That’s been the case with all the recent work of the 36-year-old from Massachusetts, an extraordinary voice in American playwriting. Her earlier work includes Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens, and she won the Pulitzer Prize three years ago for her remarkable epic about humanity in a broken-down movie theater, The Flick, and then mesmerized audiences a year later with her stunning relationship suspense drama John.
Unlike her recent plays with extended running times, The Antipodes comes in under two hours without an intermission — and also unlike Baker’s recent work, it feels long. Set entirely inside the writers’ room of a long-form Lovecraftian project (whether it’s a TV show or a video game or something else is never actually specified), the play employs a nine-person ensemble to wax filibuster-style on themes of office politics, storytelling, and the human experience. But Baker’s writing this time is patchy, ranging from moments of bravura inspiration and humor (such as a mid-play monologue in which a character employs Polonius-caliber buffoonery to recall a mentor) to the humdrum (including a dud monologue at the play’s end). At its strongest, Baker’s goal seems to be an existential riff on 12 Angry Men, but it can’t help but feel as if she’s also used the setting, evidently familiar to her from some personal experience, to empty her desk of some admittedly great lines and half-finished ideas.
Ultimately, we’re waiting for a thematic crescendo that never arrives, even when a mythical storm enters the plot. A stack of La Croix sparking water cases on one side of the stage seems like a joke without a punchline. But thanks to the ensemble, the journey never feels like too much of a slog. As the head writer, the great growler Will Patton gives a beautiful comic performance ripe with subtext and pregnant pauses, while New York theater stalwarts Josh Hamilton, Emily Cass McDonnell and Josh Charles each discover tiny nuances in their roles. Nicole Rodenburg, saddled with an uncharacteristically (for Baker) mean-spirited up-speaky office assistant character, locates traces of cunning and absurdity in a rote part. Director Lila Neugebauer ably keeps the material alive, including by twice employing an amazing theatrical sleight of hand, wherein lunch appears on the conference room table seemingly from out of thin air. That’s a magic spark that fans of Baker’s have perhaps been too primed to expect. The Antipodes, echoing its own plot, is essentially an Annie Baker spitball session. And she’s built enough capital and audience trust to throw an experiment our way, even if it doesn’t stick to the wall. B–