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Off Broadway Review: Annie Baker’s ‘The Antipodes’

Variety logo Variety 4/24/2017 Marilyn Stasio
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When good playwrights are unable to write, they sometimes write bad plays about being unable to write.  Annie Baker, who is normally a very good writer (of plays including Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner “The Flick”), has written such a play in “The Antipodes.” A team of brainstorming screenwriters — played by a cast that includes Josh Charles and Josh Hamilton — drone on at stupefying length about whatever pops into their empty heads without ever coming up with a decent pitch for a TV project.  The exercise is painful for these brain-dead writers, but pure torture for audiences. 

This bumbling writing team of six men and one woman immediately gets off on the wrong foot by spitballing ideas for a monster movie. (No dwarves or elves or trolls allowed, but centaurs and banshees are cool.)  Until it turns out that Sandy (longtime alt-theater veteran Will Patton), their studio wrangler, wasn’t directing them to write about literal monsters, but “something monstrous, something deformed and foreign and terrifying.”

Once they’re finally all on the same page, these hacks still can’t come up with a functional idea. They loosen up by sharing vapid personal accounts of their adolescent sexual adventures, apparently unaware that this workshop exercise is so old, it’s wearing a beard.  Having exhausted that topic, they move on to Embarrassing Stories, Painful Stories and Stories of Regret.

Finally, one of their number, an unassuming guy named Danny who’s blessed with creative vision and played with grave sensitivity by the excellent Danny McCarthy, shares a strange and tender memory involving a chicken. (If he had only picked up that chicken, he knows that his whole life might have changed.) But instead of acknowledging Danny’s creative imagination, Sandy calls him out of the conference room and we never hear from him again.

The only other interesting story — a retelling of the creation myth by Adam (the velvety-voiced Phillip James Brannon) — doesn’t come until near the end of the play.  That leaves a lot of dead stage time to be filled with superficial thoughts about Time and Space and cabbages and kings. Happily, there are periodic appearances from Sandy’s gawky assistant, Sarah (the endearingly quirky Nicole Rodenburg), robotically taking lunch orders and, in one elevating scene, sharing a wonderfully weird story of her own.

Despite being deeply unlikable, Sandy is the only one left standing who understands the importance of storytelling and tries to pass it on to these airheads. “I think maybe there are no more stories,” he concludes, despondently. “Not that we’ve told all the stories. But I think maybe it’s the end of an era. Like maybe this is actually the worst possible time in the history of the world to be telling stories.”  Stories by these guys, anyway.

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