Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play caused quite a stir when it played at Playwrights Horizons in 2013. A three-act play set in an apocalyptic world in which a single episode of The Simpsons is acted out and passed down to dwindling generations, Mr. Burns struck a real chord with those who responded to it. Though that play had its detractors, no one could deny Washburn’s far-reaching, bold ambition.
Her new play Antlia Pneumatica at Playwrights seems at first like a more conventional work, at least as outlined. A group of six old friends gather at a ranch in the Texas Hill Country to have a wake for a friend who died. They are in their late thirties and early forties, and though they used to be very close in their hard-drinking twenties they haven’t kept in close touch since then. This sounds like the set-up for The Big Chill (1983), of course, but Washburn’s play couldn’t be further away from the tone and style of that Baby Boomer reunion movie.
The friends talk in a way that is arch and referential, and they mention a lot of people in passing that are just that: references. More disturbingly, they sometimes mention someone they knew from the past and then they argue about their ultimate fate. Didn’t that one guy die? Wasn’t it some kind of drug deal gone bad, or something to do with drug people, and didn’t he die really badly? Or was that just a movie they’re remembering? Washburn is interested here in how the details of memory start to get hazy and start to merge with other influences, and she applies this to dreams and to the supernatural, too.
Large sections of Antlia Pneumatica, which refers to a loosely arranged star constellation in the southern sky, start to be played as just voices in the dark, voices of the children of Nina (Annie Parisse) and the voices of Nina and her old lover Adrian (Rob Campbell), a very particular kind of self-destructive and intellectual macho guy in the Sam Shepard vein. Washburn makes demands on her audience here. Most of us aren’t used to giving ourselves over to just the sound of voices and meeting them imaginatively to complete what they are saying or suggesting to us. It’s hard to know where to look on stage when most of the lights are out and the voices are speaking, hard to know if we are meant to stare into the dark or if we should just close our eyes to listen.
Antlia Pneumatica is eccentric and difficult but rewarding, filled with tangents and blocks of unsteady information leading to a section where Nina suddenly evokes and describes her dead mother so vividly and so specifically that it feels like we can see and hear this Stevie Nicks-like woman (Nina’s father was a famous rock-and-roll singer). Washburn’s perspective is so large as to be cosmic, and unconcerned with things like plot and finally even character. This play is like an explosion of matter that cannot be put back into any proper order, and Washburn sees a freedom in that. She likes to have her characters speak of small things and large things but skips the middle ground that most plays reside in. This might be irritating to some, but to others it will be liberating: post-play, post-apocalyptic, lost in space.