The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 11, $30 through May 14, $90 after
Near the beginning of Annie Baker’s first play for her Residency Five program at the Signature Theatre, John, a character declares, “Tell me a story.” Baker takes that conceit to a whole new level in her follow-up, The Antipodes, which has been extended at the Signature through June 11. The set-up is essentially fairly simple: a group of coworkers sit in ergonomic chairs around a table in an office, where they spend their days sharing deeply personal tales that might or might not lead to the one that their boss, Sandy (Will Patton), needs as he seeks material for a successor to their biggest hit, Heathens. The audience, sitting on two sides of Laura Jellinek’s pristine set, never learns what kind of company the seven men and two women work for — but it’s apparently at least somewhat bureaucratic and corporate, as Josh (Josh Hamilton) has to fill out forms over and over in an ongoing effort to try to get his ID. The tale they seek involves monsters, but no dwarves, elves, or trolls; they could be making movies, video games, apps, or an animated television series, although it doesn’t really matter, because it’s all about the stories themselves. “There are seven types of stories in the world,” Dave (Josh Charles) says, while Danny M1 (Danny Mastrogiorgio) claims there are thirty-six, Josh ten, and Brian (Brian Miskell) eighteen. They share intimate sexual episodes, moments that shaped their lives, and random tales that go nowhere. Josh philosophizes about the nature of time, Eleanor (Emily Cass McDonnell) doesn’t understand why she can’t use her cell phone, Danny M2 (Danny McCarthy) is hesitant to contribute, and Adam (Phillip James Brannon) remembers being hit by lightning. Scenes often end in the middle of a discussion, then pick up in the midst of a new topic, with no clear delineation of the time change except when Sarah (Nicole Rodenburg), Sandy’s assistant — who knows more than she’s letting on — arrives to take lunch orders, wearing a different chic outfit each time, courtesy of costume designer Kaye Voyce. While it doesn’t appear that they are accomplishing anything, Sandy, a straight shooter who is having some issues at home, pushes them to keep going. “I just wanted to remind all of you that what you’re doing is important. We need stories. As a culture. It’s what we live for. These are dark times. Stories are a little bit of light that we can cup in our palms like votive candles to show us the way out of the forest.” Even Brian, the note-taker and researcher, gets in on the action. But the team starts getting nervous when Sandy suddenly doesn’t show up one day.
The Antipodes, which sounds like a mythical monster but actually means “contrary” or “the exact opposite,” has all the makings of a pretentious play about the art of playwrighting, a work about the writer’s struggle to come up with a good idea, but Pulitzer Prize winner Baker (The Flick, Circle Mirror Transformation), who wrote the two-hour show specifically for the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, proves that it’s not that obvious. Instead, it’s a carefully crafted existential take on everyday existence, on the things humans do to get by, from eating and drinking to having sex, from going to work and communicating with others to dealing with life’s little problems. “We can do anything,” Sandy points out, as if he’s speaking for Baker the playwright, who is firmly in control. The show is also about the concept of time, which in a play can be manipulated by the writer. “There are two kinds of time. Vertical and horizontal. And if something happens in horizontal time, it can be . . . it’s not permanent,” Josh explains. “You can reverse it. Like one of them is the time that we think of when we think of normal time that’s moving forward and you can’t go back. But then there’s another kind of time and if you do something in that kind of time you can . . . uh . . . it’s more flexible.” Director Lila Neugebauer, who has done an extraordinary job navigating through time and space in such complex multicharacter dramas as The Wayside Motor Inn, The Wolves, and Everybody, makes every movement count, never allowing the narrative flow to drag, whether by way of a bit of magic about where lunch comes from or Adam lying on the floor to tell “the first story ever told.” The actors form an utterly believable group, fellow employees with unique personalities, some of whom bond while others remain outsiders, just as in real life. “The stories we create teach people what it’s like to be someone else on a visceral level,” Sandy tells his crew. “As storytellers we know how to shift perspective and inhabit different viewpoints. Imagine what would happen if everyone in the world could do every once in a while what we already do on a daily basis. It would be revolutionary.” The Antipodes is another exceptional play from one of the theater’s finest minds, a writer who is never afraid of going for the revolutionary in her work.