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Theater review by David Cote
You’ve heard Hemingway’s blunt formula for writing: “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Annie Baker’s characters more or less follow that advice in The Antipodes, her latest intensely vivid hypnotizing act disguised as a play. A TV staff writer (Danny Mastrogiorgio) recalls an extramarital affair that ended with (deep breath) gory ejaculate in a shower. Later, assistant Brian (Brian Miskell) hacks up a bloody knot of…thread? before shamefully making his exit. Besides these visible exsanguinations, the rest of Baker’s scribes seem to shrivel up over the course of several months, their vital fluids sucked out by intimidating, inscrutable showrunner Sandy (Will Patton).
The milieu is behind the scenes of series TV, but Baker (The Flick, John), one of America’s most exacting and exciting voices, does not supplement her income in Hollywood (unlike many playrights). The Antipodes happens to be set in the writers’ room of a supernatural-themed show ruled by Sandy, who demands his ink-stained wretches dredge up their deepest memories or fantasies to fuel the creative bonfire. That means lots of embarrassing or painful recollections of sex and death—and elliptical theory-spinning. It takes place in two unbroken hours (not real time, but linear), and we never leave the corporate conference room.
This hermetic premise—executed with gimlet-eyed flair by director Lila Neugebauer—gives Baker (and the audience) permission to view narrative in all its tangled, self-consuming oddness. The cast is a dream team of weird-play wranglers: Patton’s dead-eyed dictator has a way of slowly unscrewing his thermos that feels like a druidic summons; Danny McCarthy and Josh Hamilton’s newbies resemble twitchy rabbits in a fox’s den; Phillip James Brannon makes the play’s longest and freakiest speech sound like a fireside chat; and downtown treasure Emily Cass McDonnell navigates, with a bemused wryness, being the only female writer. Despite all the yarns spooled on the floor, by the end I still wanted to know: What’s her story?
Pershing Square Signature Center. By Annie Baker. Directed by Lila Neugebauer. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs. No intermission. Through June 4.
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