ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
BOOKS and CDs
See links at top of our Main Page
LETTERS TO EDITOR
FILM & TV
A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
In The Internationist whole chunks of dialogue were spoken in an oddly authentic Eastern European language. Yet that language was strictly Ms. Washburn's sort of sophisticated re-invention of pig Latin that used to be a popular nonsense language among kids. No super titles. No occasional words to hint at what's being said. Just this Washburnspeak.
Her less well known The Ladies, (presented as an in-the-works play in 2004) had the wives of four of notorious 20th century's dictators as its main characters. Besides performing bits from their own lives to draw on themes from A Doll's House and Anna Karenina they moved in and out of the action to also play other characters, even their husbands.
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, Ms. Washburn's first play at Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theater, again displayed her penchant for stepping out of the comfort zone of easily comprehensible, storytelling and playfully making the familiar both fantastic and commonplace. Her familiar starting point in that play were old Simpsons episodes to evoke her vision a post-apolypctic society.
Antlia Pneumatica, commissioned by Playwrights Horizon to bring Ms. Washburn back to the company's popular second stage, seems to lean more heavily on realism than some of her previous plays. The basic set-up of a group of people in their mid to late thirties gathered together to execute the last wishes of one of their contemporaries immediately evokes the film The Big Chill. In fact, in his program notes Playwright Horisons' artistic director Tim Sanford admits that he and his colleagues initially found themselves referring to Antlia Pneumatica as Washburn's "Big Chill play."
Indeed the similarities are striking: Instead of reuniting in South Carolina, the characters in this oddly named play are reunited in a little used ranch home in the Texas Hill Country they all left years ago. That includes their dead friend Sean, who apparently lived in New York where he died in a street accident. The reason for the Texas meet-up is that though he didn't have a formal will, a file found among his belongings which was called "When I Die" stated that he wanted to buried in Texas.
As in the famous film, the death stirs memories and ruminations about death (including plans for their own "when I die" lists). But Washburn, as usual, takes the plot and themes that apparently inspired her into non-linear, more mystical territory. This begins with the arrival of Adrian (Rob Campbell), who was once the boyfriend of Nina (Annie Parisse), whose house this is. While Parisse is the lead player, in typical Washburnian mode, the play no more has a definite protagonist as a clear-cut central theme or plot arc.
Adrian is a somewhat ghostly presence which is most evident in a scene with Nina (I'll leave it to you to figure out if it's in real time or a dream). That scene plays out with the stage pitch black except for a starry sky in which Adrian discovered the small, faintly distinguished titular constellation. It's certainly the longest scene requiring you to listen to actors you can't see you're likely to see on any stage. Maybe if all this darkness didn't go on so painfully long we could make more sense of the issues Ms. Washburn wants us to think about. Ditto for Nina's unseen children Casey and Wally (Skylar Dunn and Azhy Roberton) who we also hear (but never see) grieving for a dead ant).
Rachel Hauk's set establishes hints of the Texas ranch locale courtesy of a wooden floor and bushes at the rear of the stage and along the aisles. But since funeral prompted get-togethers like this always involve a lot of eating and drinking, the set is aptly dominated by a large kitchen work counter. Here's where the various cast members sit, stand around and prepare salads, pies and other food for their own consumption and a feast for other people apparently expected.
All this conversation punctuated business of getting out dishes, chopping and stirring reminded me of Richard Nelson's dinner and talk plays, the most recent, Hungry. Nelson's reliance on super-realism throughout and table talk that fully reveals his characters and their issues and problems makes his essentally plotless plays wonderfully effective. Unfortunately the talk in Ms. Washburn's Texas kitchen doesn't engage us quite as consistently. What we learn about the characters is too fragmentary to make us really care enough to be as attentive to the various issues the playwright wants us to attend to as carefully as Avery wants Nina to look at that Antlia constellation.
One of the best exchanges during all the food preparation in Antlia Pneumatica is when Nina's sister Liz (April Matthis) declares this planned feast to be a pretense. As Liz points out, too many years have passed for them to actually miss the dead Sean as they would have if he'd died years ago and that there's simply no pretending that Sean is still a real part of their lives. In short, their gathering is strictly "a reassembled memory of a community."
There's also an intriguing scene in which Sean makes an appearance via a box with his ashes which Len (Nat De Wof) drops on the counter top. That cardboard box triggers some thoughtful and amusing reflections. It also confirms Liz's declaration about the group's tenuous involvement with this long-ago friend, since the cardboard box was what the funeral home gave him because no one had bothered to select an urn.
Bama (Crystal Finn), the vivacious sixth member of the group doesn't arrive until the play's almost over. She tops all the other recounted memories with a spooky disquieting anecdote.
Except for these occasionally engaging conversations, however, most of the table talk meanders along and leaves us wishing director Ken Rus Schmoll had trimmed it along with that interesting but overlong star gazing scene in the dark.
The actors' performances overall are fine. Too bad they're playing six characters in search of a play by Anne Washburn at her best.