Welcome to Annie Baker’s World of Unseen Horrors: Review of ‘The Antipodes’
The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright returns with perhaps her most mysterious play yet—about an endless office meeting taken up with storytelling.
The mysterious and esoteric are part of Annie Baker’s everyday. In her last play, John, what seemed like a stay at a cozy bed and breakfast turned into a darker and altogether stranger ghost story. In The Flick, Baker’s play which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2014—and which confirmed her presence as one of the most significant playwrights of today—the downtrodden staff of a fleapit cinema approached moments of unlikely transcendence.
So, what possible mystery awaits the seven attractive and casually dressed people sitting around an office conference table in The Antipodes, directed by Lila Neugebauer? And what mystery awaits the audience, because Baker’s play—recently extended for a third time to June 4 at the Signature Theatre in New York—is its own baffling puzzle.
When you walk into the show there is a young man, Brian (Brian Miskell) sitting at what looks like a conference table engrossed in his computer. The table, with exits on either side, sits at the center of the theatre, with the audience observing the actors in banks of seats—like facing down to an operating table—from either side.
We don’t know exactly who the most visible big boss, Sandy (Will Patton, taciturn and dressed all in black), is, and why he has bought these people together. It sounds, although is never made explicit, as if they may be making a horror-themed TV show or film, and this is to be a brainstorming session of a group of writers preparing the series themselves telling stories. Or, less charitably, the gathered workers are about to have their stories ripped from them in the service of storytelling. They are merely content generators, about to be exploited in the name of art. Who owns stories, what are they, what service do they provide, what use are they, who are they for?
The first things we hear being discussed are werewolves, vampires, and banshees—there is a ban on dwarves, elves, and trolls. The program for the play is illustrated by the manticore: a creature with a lion’s body and human head, and three rows of sharp teeth, a leg in its mouth.
But talking about such things isn’t done as if spit-balling ideas. The comedy of the play is the contrast of this esoteric myth being voiced matter-of-factly in just another office conference room with black ergonomic chairs. Periodically we see Sarah (Nicole Rodenburg), a secretary who orders food for the group; her change of outfits signals that we are in another day—there is no other visible symbol of time moving.
The gathered workers are much younger than Sandy. There is only one woman in their number, Eleanor (Emily Cass McDonnell), who makes a special request for Granny Smith apples and almond butter. She likes macrobiotic pills too.
Directing in such a static space is a challenge, but Neugebauer, nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award for The Wolves and who directed Everybody in the neighboring theatre a few months ago, has the actors rotating slightly in chairs to face one another, and later sleeping on the floor. Occasionally, they rise for cans of LaCroix sparkling water, boxes of which are the only other decoration in the room.
We seem to be in the future, but not an inconceivably far one. Sandy, dressed all in black and gruff and speaking so slowly every word seems intended to impart some kind of leaden wisdom, claims, “I’m a pretty nice boss. I don’t fire people. Unless they’re complete assholes. You won’t work past seven or on weekends.”
But he breaks a few of these proclamations as Baker’s engrossing and head-scratching two-hour intermission-less play goes on. The actors, commendably, are utterly enveloped in the material; stage directions insist they talk over one another. The play also skips beats and words within its own structure. It cannot be easy to perform.
The aim of the getting together, Sandy says, is to tell a really good story. “So we should feel comfortable saying whatever and not having to be PC or worry about anyone judging us or anything like that. This is a sacred space and what we say here obviously stays in the cone of silence.”
And so the stories begin: Dave (Josh Charles) recalls the time he held off having an orgasm by thinking about his baseball card collection. Danny M1 (Danny Mastrogiorgio) recalls having a horrible sounding sexually transmitted infection, which magically cleared up after masturbating. Danny M2 (Danny McCarthy) remembers finding a dead corn husk and a pink rock. (The Dannys seem to have been named as such because of their real names.)
Discussion moves to the nature of time—is it vertical, horizontal, a spiral or cyclical, the group wonders. Dave confesses, and some in the audience may nod: “I have no idea what we’re talking about.”
Considering the play’s title, it would not appear to the refer to the colloquial name for Australia and New Zealand, but perhaps the point on the Earth’s surface that is diametrically opposite to it.
There are references in the play that might indicate this, such as Adam (Phillip James Brannon) noting, “On the other side of the world there’s a monster who looks exactly like you doing exactly what you’re doing wearing the exact same clothes and eating the same food and going to the same job and thinking the same thoughts except the monster is doing it all upside down and backwards and in reverse order. He’s your shadow and your mirror reflection but you’re his too and when the world ends we’ll all have to figure out who’s real and who’s the copy and who’s sincere and who’s joking because one of you is going to Heaven and the other is going to Hell.”
Brian is supposed to be noting all this strange discussion and confession down, but it is unclear what project the gathered are working on because the stories keep flooding. Sandy wanders in and out, dressed in black, growling like a very karmic Tommy Lee Jones. (Mostly he comes to be absent.)
In one monologue, he recalls a man called Jerry Madigan, who he says taught him everything he knows about a range of things including, “detours and digressions…inklings and awareness…concepts and perception.”
This back and forth is punctuated by more grounding office-style chatter, like which Thai food to order, Eleanor decoding one of the men’s jokes as valorizing buying a prostitute over marriage. Brian finds the oldest animal in the world, a clam named Ming, except Ming suddenly is nothing of the sort.
Dave reveals a terrible family secret, related in such a sing-songy voice that you might miss the horror. Danny M2, in telling a story about being unable to hold a kitchen, worries that in the way he is telling the story, “you’re seeing me is not the way I am.” There is more discussion of time: what if a hundred years became a minute, and, from Adam, some thoughts about “yugas”—the Hindu idea of the four cycles of time. In this strange office, the extraordinary seems possible and tangible, and the mythic very close to home.
Sarah, no longer the clothes-changing signal of passing time herself in this strange office, delivers one of the show’s best monologues: a horror story and fairytale told in a bored monotone—a slack-jawed, “like totally” Hans Christian Andersen Valley Girl—about being a young girl and a witchy old lady who kidnapped her when she was a kid. Luckily, she had a talking doll who helped her out of her terrible fix, and who later killed two hated members of her family. So there. Her story is both funny and terrifying. It won an ovation the night I attended.
It strikes you that we really know remarkably little about these people bar the stories they tell of themselves and their interests. What are we but the stories we construct of ourselves and others.
The stories the characters tell are great, but their point—beyond emphasizing the power or not of storytelling—is more than baffling, and after a while you may long for a glimmer of light or some elucidation. Is Sandy simply a boss using these young staffers as fresh meat, their narratives to be sucked up for whatever film or TV project is being planned? Why the sinister, stricken looks on Sarah’s face when the absent Sandy is mentioned? As dreary as the office setting is, it feels unnaturally freighted with tension, haunting, and possible horror. There is also a lot of humor here, just in how bizarre the situation is, and what is being said, and how it is being said.
A past project, Heathens, is mentioned (the past TV show or film possibly) as a possible horror show or film they’re working on.
Who do stories belong to, Sandy asks the group—what we know about Jesus, Socrates, and Confucius is from people telling their stories.
We see the group communicating with an unseen posh British voice, Jeff (Hugh Dancy), an uber-boss above Sandy it seems. His voice breaks regularly, just as exchanges in the play itself are broken. We hear more about Alejandra, a former employee who disappeared to who knows where a while back. Adam wonders if it would be possible to attach electrodes to the brain to govern people’s storytelling desires.
This is all fine, but Sandy, we learn, sometimes pulls the plug on projects. Josh spends the whole play with no ID and no pay. When he raises that with Sandy, Sandy observes him as if he is an alien. However deep the play is about storytelling and time, it also skewers the workplace culture of today—of everything appearing soft and collegiate, but beneath that rampant exploitation of time and ability.
When Sandy turns up again, after many no-shows caused by familial and other problems, he again speaks up for storytelling: “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.”
Off he goes out to who knows where again, for the team to debate the many different types of storytelling there are, with Brian writing a sentence on a whiteboard, then subtracting letters until the workers are all intoning the remaining nonsense phrase as if summoning up creativity itself: “AWEE PUUTEM RAD TROTS.”
As they fall asleep in the office, Brian strips and puts a feather mask on, and wafts something mysterious over them. Later he vomits: “Maybe it’s small jellyfish or a seahorse or anemone, covered in red,” the stage notes say. Time itself has frozen in the room, suddenly it feels outside time. You realize two people have disappeared while the play has gone on. What happened to them?
On waking, Adam tells the show’s most fantastical tale, one without end really about creation, and how creatures and stories emerged from creation. This is a virtuosic piece of writing—there’s outrage in the group when it is discovered it wasn’t being noted down—but it leads to the play’s darker, more political point.
If up to now, The Antipodes has been about the power and diversity and use of storytelling, by the end it is about the impotence of storytelling, and its limitations; Sandy wonders whether our screwed-up world means this is “the worst possible time in the history of the world to be telling stories.”
Baker, through Eleanor, just about keeps the faith in what storytelling is to the end—after all it can ward off horrors, some would say just by invoking them. Words can inocluate as well as inculcate.
Sandy has returned again by this time, but we still don’t know what wider story the stories have been in the service of. We don’t know who the characters are, or where what we have seen leaves them. Baker has simply provided a space for their stories, both personal and fictional. And whatever message she intended, you head into the New York night thinking of a little girl confronting a witch with a talking doll. There may be a film in that.
The Antipodes is at the The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, NYC, until June 4. Book tickets here.