by JK Clarke
A prevailing sentiment one feels while watching the Anne Washburn’s Antlia Pneumatica—now playing at Playwrights Horizons and directed by Ken Rus Schmoll—is déjà vu. That’s not because the story is bringing up familiar emotions that hit close to home, but rather because we’ve seen it before, both on stage and at the cinema. Sure, there are innumerable instances wherein narratives have similar themes and stories, but there’s usually enough differentiation that keeps us interested.
In Antlia Pneumatica, a group of friends who grew up together in the Texas hill country and who haven’t, for the most part, been very much in touch over the past 25 years or so, reunite for the “funeral” of one of their group . . . despite none of them being all that close to him. Most of the action takes place in the kitchen as they together prepare an overlarge buffet for their upcoming ceremony. They’re not a particularly formal or structured group and, in fact, they don’t even have concrete plans as to what they’re going to do with . . . Sean’s—oh yeah, that’s his name—ashes. More important than the funeral of this supposed friend is that Nina (Annie Parisse), who is hosting the get together, is stirred by the arrival of her old flame, Adrian (Rob Campbell), an odd bird whose presence we start to doubt. At some point reality begins to shift and Nina’s dreams blend with her waking life. At times the whole event, which features long disembodied discussions over the P.A. in a darkened theater, starts to feel a bit like a dream, or at least very mystical. But funerals—and emotional visits into our past—can be like that. So, who knows?
In any case, it’s one of those plays that falls into the “I liked it better when it was …” category. And in this case that blank is filled by the 1983 Lawrence Kasden film, The Big Chill. And that’s primarily because it had a great soundtrack (though it also featured a lot of eventually important movie stars from Jeff Goldblum to William Hurt to Kevin Kline). When I was in high school, girls with names like Jenny and Margaret (with faces to match the names) used to sit in their cars at lunch hour to eat bread and listen to the film’s soundtrack of 60s and 70s hits by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Three Dog Night. The point is, this story, in almost identical fashion, has been done (as well as in other recent stage plays), and effectively enough that this version seems extraneous.
It would be different if there was something that made the play stand out. Aside from April Matthis’ nice turn as a wry Liz (Nina’s sister), the performances were good but not exceptional, and the same went for Rachel Hauck’s realistic set, Tyler Micoleau’s moody lighting and Leah Gelpe’s sound design, which featured loud and very realistic off-stage voices that many times caused me to turn to see if an actor was coming down the stairs behind me. But Washburn’s naturalistic dialog (which harkened Annie Baker’s excruciating pacing in The Flick) with overly long, sometimes uncomfortable pauses, made for moments when we no longer cared what a character would say, just so long as they’d get it over with.
It’s not every day that an author provides the reviewer with the primary shortcoming of their play right in the title. Antlia Pneumatica loosely refers to an “air pump” and it, unfortunately, also refers to what’s wrong with the play: it’s too full of hot air that fills the space of something we not only can’t see, but also don’t care about.
Antlia Pneumatica. Through April 24 at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater (416 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). www.playwrightshorizons.org
Photos: Joan Marcus