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Annie Baker’s first two plays seen at the national The Flick and John were extraordinary and marked her out as one of the most distinctive and original writers in American theater today. She won the Pulitzer for The Flick set in a run-down suburban cinema in Massachusetts. Like John, which was set in a Gettysburg boarding house crammed with dolls and tchotchkes, it mined a glorious seam of drama from the seemingly mundane. Her new play is sadly not in their league.
Its theme is the role of storytelling in modern life and yet it runs out of narrative steam itself very early on and concludes as rather incoherent apocalypse drama.
In an interview Baker admitted that part of the inspiration for this work was a Youtube video she saw which unintentionally sent up the pomposity of the young turks working in the writers’ room for Game of Thrones, sitting around all day being self-important whilst sipping Perrier. The latter beverage plays a big role here too.
Here the setting is a forbidding board room dominated by a huge conference table around which sit a group of young-ish men and just one woman who appear to be Hollywood writers hired by the slippery boss, Sandy (Conleth Hill), to generate stories. Hill is perfect as the distracted Hollywood snake, mouthing platitudes.
He doesn’t want elves he says at the outset, but the team seem to be directed very much towards tales based on monsters of classical mythology. To loosen up the group he makes each member in turn disclose uncensored stories from their own lives. These run the gamut from banal to quirky and tedious to crude and they cover everything from first sexual experiences or meditations on their biggest fears to explorations about the nature of time. They meander on and on while Sandy flits in and out, glued to his phone, or taking a conference call from the studio honcho. Baker is typically brilliant at dramatizing stasis and in finding the extraordinary in the ordinariness of the more human of these tales.
The central notion of The Antipodes as a place and creatures at the opposite side of the earth and how monster stories function as a way of giving form to our fears has long been a subject for classical study but here Baker seems to use it as a springboard to explore how monsters can be found as much in everyday life as in the classical world.
The problem is that the output of this group never really coheres in a way which might illuminate what exactly she is after and instead she lets it all slowly deflate with a long ramshackle monster narrative related by one of the writers, towards the end, which the others then consider as some kind of breakthrough. It seems a flippant cop out.
By now some extreme weather event has also meant they’re locked-in over a weekend which adds to the paranoia among this competitive bunch. The play deflates like a leaky balloon and by the end outstays its welcome, more of a thesis than a drama.
An ace ensemble cast do their best to give it life however, but this motley group of writers aren’t sufficiently differentiated to be compelling. It is up to Imogen Doel as Sandy’s PA Sarah to bring welcome moments of humanity and wit to it. She keeps interrupting the group asking for lunch orders and such and even offers up a personal reminiscence which is very Hansel and Gretel and more animated than any of the writers’ stories.
Baker co-directs the piece with Chloe Lamford who also designs the striking set, laid out on a thrust stage. Dominated by an imposing light fitting the room has carpeting you won’t soon forget. It’s beautifully observed but sadly the staging does present practical problems for most of the audience. You will spend the whole time facing half the characters seated with their backs to you.