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Antlia Pneumatica: Theater review by David Cote
First let’s get that pesky title out of the way: Antlia Pneumatica is Latin for “air pump.” It’s also the name of a constellation mapped by French astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille in a book published posthumously in 1763. Sorry not to preface that with “spoiler alert,” but I’m guessing you’re still confused. In fact, I could recount the entire plot of Anne Washburn’s elegantly weird play about friendship and memory without lessening its mystery a jot. Just as Lacaille reorganized his perception of dots of light, imaginatively connecting stars to suggest an air pump, so we may catch hold of ribbons of information that Washburn unspools over us and weave our own fabric of meaning.
If that sounds like she’s rejected the author’s “duty” to shape a narrative for maximum clarity as well as emotional and intellectual impact, well, Washburn (10 Out of 12) is not your ordinary playwright. The pleasures of her work are fugitive, sidelong and slippery. The characters may talk about old boyfriends, their children and the mountains of food they’re preparing for a funeral reception, but the reality of the play keeps bending and warping. Bad-boy Adrian (smolderingly wry Rob Campbell) talks about a tattoo he once vowed to get on his midriff and, by the end, those details recur in a way that makes no sense and perfect sense.
Old friends gather at a Texas ranch house inherited by two sisters: controlling but caring Nina (Annie Parisse) and Liz (April Matthis, slyly hilarious). Also present are Ula (Maria Striar, arch yet goofy) and Len (Nat DeWolf, sunny and droll). The effusive Bama (Crystal Finn) comes later, as does Adrian, who wasn’t invited but nevertheless knew Sean, whose death has brought everyone together.
So far, so ordinary you think. But what Washburn and her brilliant director Ken Rus Schmoll do with dialogue and theatrical space makes an ordinary kitchen island seem like a bobbing hunk of flotsam in a churning sea of chaos. Nina has two children who are never seen but heard talking with adults in wonderfully vivid voiceovers (Leah Gelpe designed the skin-prickling sound). The dialogue is often glib, funny and heartfelt, making Antlia a sheer joy as a listening device. We hear of people’s dreams, ex-lovers flirting in pitch-black dark, ghost stories and songs. Washburn’s witty, surprising language makes you laugh in self-recognition, then gasp at a turn into poetic intensity. I think everyone should see Anne Washburn’s plays, but those who demand familiar forms and takeaway messages be warned: all that’s needed here are your ears.—David Cote
Playwrights Horizons (Off Broadway). By Anne Washburn. Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll. With Rob Campbell, Nat DeWolf, Crystal Finn, April Matthis, Annie Parisse and Maria Striar. Running time: 1hr 45mins. No intermission.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote