For almost ten years Annie Baker has written innovative, patient, semi-lyric, mysterious plays, and she is well on her way to becoming a beloved cultural figure. Her four best plays so far, Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens, The Flick, and John, were all directed by Sam Gold, and all of them had an unusual feel for time inching forward and sometimes opening up. They were convincing and suggestive theatrical worlds created around silences and things not said and the ghostly atmosphere of a location. At their best, these were plays that evoked the divine, almost like a secular going to church, and they provided a kind of healing.
The Antipodes is a very different kind of play. It is directed by Lila Neugebauer and runs an hour and fifty-five minutes with no intermission, and it is set around a generic conference table that is the center of a writers’ room that cannot be left. In her past work Baker would often take a long time to set up a few characters and their milieu and then a monologue about childhood or about time might slowly emerge from all that careful preparation. In The Antipodes, there are almost no pauses and there is no time for consideration.
There are eight people in this room all trying to impress a controlling boss-guru figure named Sandy (Will Patton), and the first stories that are told around the table are crudely sexual. This is a male world with only one slightly hippie-ish female named Eleanor (Emily Cass McDonnell) to contrast with the six men jockeying for position and for Sandy’s favor. There is also an assistant named Sarah (Nicole Rodenburg) who is there to get food for everyone, and she keeps entering in different brightly colored outfits to show that time is passing. Just what they are doing or trying to do remains vague, but it is made very clear that Josh (Josh Hamilton) has been pitching stories for months without getting paid or getting a proper ID.
Part of the problem with this production comes from having been staged in a space at the Signature Theatre where one half of the audience is facing one side of the table and the other half is facing the other side, which meant that I missed about 90% of Josh Hamilton’s performance because I was staring at the back of his head. But this isn’t the only way to get lost here. There is a sense sometimes in The Antipodes that Baker is following her muse into some kind of swamp or dark forest where her talent sinks or gets waylaid. There is also a sense that she doesn’t really like these people but somehow she has been stuck with them. It’s like this play was inside of Baker and she just had to vomit it out to get rid of it.
The compassion and poetry of Baker’s best work gives way here to muffled anger and despair that lacks focus and direction. Watching The Antipodes is like starting to randomly surf the Internet and then suddenly the day is over and you wonder what you did with all of those hours. Maybe that’s what Baker intended. But she has wound up writing a play about how writing a play is basically pointless, and that’s depressing in a limited way. If The Antipodes is an attempt to move in a new direction, it proves just how potent the old directions are for Baker.