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Theatre in Review: Antlia Pneumatica (Playwrights Horizons)

Nat DeWolf, Maria Striar, Crystal Finn, April Matthis. Photo: Joan Marcus.

One doesn't watch the plays of Anne Washburn; one eavesdrops on them. Normal, straight-up exposition is not her forte; in her view, the characters' backstories are revealed on a strictly need-to-know basis. Instead, she puts the play in motion and doesn't look back, assuming that we will infer from the dialogue any needed information. It's a daring methodology and it doesn't always pay off; her plays can sometimes seem willfully withholding. I doubt that Antlia Pneumatica is going to win her any new fans; it's a mood-and-conversation piece with very little in the way of action. Still, in its sly, sideways manner, it has something -- a haunting sense of the passage of time, a feeling of wonderment at the mysteries of the universe. She makes you work harder than usual, but that's the price of admission when you're dealing with an original.

In Antlia Pneumatica, a group of friends descends on a ranch in Texas to -- we gradually come to realize -- spread the ashes of their late friend, Sean. Hovering around the age of 40, they apparently once were part of the same college crowd in Austin. But before you start humming the theme from The Big Chill, Washburn hints at a more complicated reality: They've been out of touch with Sean -- and with each other -- for years, and have seemingly inherited his remains because there was no one else to take them. What about Sean's death has compelled them to come together? Does the fact that Sean died on the street in New York imply something about his life? Why have they chosen the ranch, which belongs to the sisters Nina and Liz?

Each little nugget of information raises new mysteries: Nina is white and Liz is black, a detail that is never mentioned, let alone explained. Their father was a famous musician and there are suggestions that their parents' marriage may have been a troubled or complicated one. Although Liz seems basically fine, a stray remark reveals that she is being held together by half a dozen medications -- whether for a physical or psychological problem remains unspecified. Ula, another member of the group, casually lets slip that she broke up with her male partner three years earlier, information that she has held back until now. And then there's the appearance of Adrian, Nina's ex, a former wild man now in possession of a taciturn and eerily calm persona. It's typical of Ken Rus Schmoll's meticulous, minutely detailed direction that every time Adrian makes an entrance the temperature of the room is significantly altered; one feels sure that so much has happened that remains unspoken between him, Nina, and the others.

And so it goes: Seemingly trivial memories are exhumed, of diving in the Blue Hole, a local water source, and of the pecan grove that still exists, if barely tended to, on the ranch. Food -- lots of food -- is prepared. Disturbing encounters turn out to be dreams. At least one scene is presented out of chronological order. The box containing Sean's ashes mysteriously vanishes. Conversations take place offstage or in darkness. Nothing really happens and yet, as a meditation on middle age, mortality, the passing and rekindling of desire, and the sheer mystery of existence, Antlia Pneumatica casts a certain spell that I found beguiling.

It helps that Schmoll has assembled a company notably skilled at expressing the unsaid. Annie Parisse is first-rate as Nina, who is disturbed by Adrian's return in ways she can't fully express. April Matthis' Liz is the most mordant member of the group, especially when asserting, "Let's not pretend that Sean was still part of our lives. Let's not pretend we actually miss him. Let's not pretend that our lives have that kind of grandeur anymore." As Ula, Maria Striar is especially good when explaining to Nina how she once swiped a coffee cup belonging to Nina's father, keeping it as celebrity souvenir or talisman. Nat DeWolf as Len, the only other man we see besides Adrian -- the script makes clear that several other unseen characters are in attendance but they are always somewhere else -- does well by a lengthy couple of speeches about "bachelors," an out-of-date term for farmers leading a borderline-feral existence who would stumble out of the bush and into civilization from time to time. (These speeches often seem to be an oblique comment on Adrian.) Crystal Finn amuses and disturbs as the group's token southern belle, who arrives with crucial news that rewrites much of what we've seen. Rob Campbell is a deeply enigmatic presence as Adrian, who seems to want something from Nina -- but what? The stage is filled with ghosts, some of them figments of memory and some of them quite possibly the real thing.

With a play such as this, which relies on sensibility rather than conflict and dramatic action, the right production design is especially important. Rachel Hauck's set, depicting a kitchen island framed by overhanging branches from the pecan trees, is an evocative piece of minimalism lit with real magic by Tyler Micoleau. Just last week, I complained that The Effect, also lit by Micoleau, featured scenes set in near-darkness; here, the night-sky sequence, featuring two actors posed against a star field embedded in the upstage wall and a painstakingly slow lights-up cue, works beautifully. Of course, the writing has much to do with it, as well as Leah Gelpe's sound design, which makes the dialogue easier to hear. (Gelpe neatly handles the many voiceover sequences.)

I won't pretend that any of the play's mysteries are solved or that any of the characters are significantly changed when it is all over. The title refers to a constellation supposedly named by a French astronomer who, Adrian says, "pulled together leftover stars and made new constellations." Washburn puts us in a similar position, leaving it to us to assemble a coherent picture with the bits of information she scatters about. It's a risky way of working, but, in this case, it makes for a most compelling puzzle. -- David Barbour


(6 April 2016)

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