Annie Baker loves to write sad men. From dropouts KJ and Jasper in The Aliens to lonely movie geeks Sam and Avery in 2014 Pulitzer Prize–winner The Flick, Baker’s plays are populated with lovable losers who can’t quite figure out what they want out of life, and probably wouldn’t be able to get it if they did. The awkward silences that punctuate her comedic quasi-dramas are electric with lost futures, crippling insecurity, and unspoken desires.
Or they used to be, anyway. With The Antipodes, Baker has turned her surgical spotlight on the alpha dogs of corporate America. The characters still suffer from deep undercurrents of sadness and regret, but they’ve successfully repurposed these personal traumas and sacrificed them to the God of Business. Unlike with Baker's earlier Joe Lunchbuckets, their stories of suffering don’t hold them back; they’re fodder for the next product.
The entire story plays out in the type of blandly impersonal, windowless conference room that could be anywhere; if it’s not in Silicon Valley, it certainly wants to be. The only elements in Laura Jellinek’s traverse set (with the audience on each side) are a large table and some ergonomic chairs, underneath a large oval fluorescent light fixture straight out of the war room in Dr. Strangelove. In a perfect, hysterically realistic detail, the only pop of color comes from six piles of La Croix Sparkling Water cases in a corner of the room, arranged by flavor.
The people sitting in those ergonomic chairs have gathered to create some sort of new storytelling venture under the leadership of Elon Musk–like tech guru Sandy (Will Patton, riffing on the gruff-but-caring persona he has developed in films like Armageddon, Remember the Titans, and Wendy and Lucy). It’s never made explicit what they’re actually creating, but there is talk of coding and actors. Over the course of a few months (it’s difficult to tell for sure; scenes and days bleed into each other in Lila Neugebauer’s fluid staging), they do little but tell one another stories around the table as they search for inspiration. As the play opens, the team is debating what kind of monster they want to use in their project; talk also veers to lost virginity, embarrassing memories, and narrowly avoided STDs. In Sandy’s “sacred space” there is no rush to produce, and certainly no pressure to be PC.
Dave (Josh Charles), for whom Sandy is a surrogate father figure, and Danny (Danny Mastrogiorgio) have worked with Sandy before. Josh (indie film mainstay Josh Hamilton) is excited to be there but for some reason hasn’t been paid or issued an ID. The other Danny (Danny McCarthy) is also grateful to be on the team, but feels increasingly uncomfortable turning his (admittedly boring) personal life into a story. Adam (Phillip James Brannon), who is African-American, and Eleanor (Emily Cass McDonnell), who round out the newcomers, make themselves at home in this white boys’ club but understand Sandy’s not-so-subtle warning that “one person can make everyone feel self-conscious or judged” and regulate their behavior accordingly; in the all-too-realistic corporate world Baker has created, stories matter, but only if the “right” person is telling them.
This simple setup proves a fertile launching pad for Baker’s fevered imagination. At just under two hours, The Antipodes is her shortest play in a while, but the densest thematically. It brings to the fore a preoccupation that previously only hovered at the corners of works like Circle Mirror Transformation and The Flick—now that everyone’s lived experience has been turned into a story—slowly by marketing during the last century, and quickly by social media in the last decade—how can anyone know what’s real and what’s performance?
The irony of exploring this tension through a performance is not lost on Baker, however; she embraces it throughout, gleefully, as the characters’ stories grow stranger and more elaborate, including an out-of-left-field deadpan howler delivered with stunning nonchalance by Nicole Rodenburg, who more than holds her own against her more experienced castmates as Sarah, Sandy’s assistant, and an astonishing stream-of-consciousness Creation story that Adam conjures up in a sleep-deprived delirium.
A place’s antipode (rhymes with “zip-a-dee”) is the point diametrically opposite it on the Earth’s surface. New York City’s antipode is in the middle of the Indian Ocean, a few hundred miles off the southwest coast of Australia, a deep nightmare zone filled with frightening, unknowable monsters. The monsters invoked by the stories of The Antipodes are knowable but perhaps no less frightening: our families, our friends, our coworkers, ourselves.
Signature Theatre Company’s production of Annie Baker’s The Antipodes runs through June 4 at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. For tickets and information, visit signaturetheatre.org.