Antlia Pneumatica

by Marcus Scott

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday April 5, 2016

Annie Parisse & Maria Striar
Annie Parisse & Maria Striar  

Pop culture experts and children of the Reagan era may be remiss to parallel Anne Washburn's "Antlia Pneumatica," which opened on Monday night at Playwrights Horizons in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, to "The Big Chill," the 1983 comedy-drama by the three-time Oscar-nominated director and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan.

Echoing Kasdan's masterpiece, which follows the reunion of coterie of baby boomer college friends who assemble in at an antebellum house in South Carolina after 15 years when one of their compatriots commits suicide, at 105-minutes long (without intermission), Washburn's latest offering follows a similar élite of forty-something Generation X slackers turned life-hackers gathering south of the Mason-Dixon line on a ranch in the Texas Hill Country to scatter the ashes of Sean, a fallen comrade and wild and untamed thing.

Conversely, while the former was a mediation on the terminal depression of highflying velocities of youth bred in the epoch of the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War and Watergate Scandal, the latter is a noggin-slapping, mind-boggling mediation on middle age and the living end, albeit with zero emotional acumen or unprecedented perspective.

Born into the generation that was epitomized in the films by John Hughes and later embraced by MTV, the characters in Washburn's play are merely cardboard cutouts with a few proficiencies superimposed to create a far-reaching, higgledy-piggledy narrative reduced to senseless minutiae. The result is a blasé high art affair spiked with idiosyncratic poetry and a narrative that baffles and exasperates, mostly because most of the more interesting components take place offstage and are narrated via pre-recorded tape.

After establishing herself with works such as "10 out of 12," "The Internationalist" and "Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play," Washburn is without a doubt one of the foremost state-of-the-art playwrights operating in modern-day Off-Broadway theatre. Most of those plays play with obscurity, often happening in stark darkness, and "Antlia Pneumatica" is no exception.

But what makes this slow-burning slice of life play so unique to Washburn's cannon is perhaps the show's namesake. The allegory of the cosmos have been an ongoing theme in song and theatre, and for the last two seasons, it seems theatre-makers have been most obsessed with heavenly bodies and how we coexist with them. From Nick Payne's "Constellations" to Steve Martin's "Bright Star," these theatrical works each question fate, destiny, evolution and the like.

Christened by Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille, Washburn's play takes its name from a faint constellation in the southern sky that specifically represents an 'air pump.' That's to say, perhaps, maybe the title is analogous of the characters: Are they just blowing hot air, philosophizing instead of searching answers?

None of the assembled parties have spoken to Sean in some time and because of his absence, none of them can process exactly how mourn him. When they are not gorging on gluttonous amounts of foodstuff (gourmet pies, guacamole and smoked barbecue that would make Jess Tyler Ferguson's Sam character in Becky Mode's "Fully Committed" drool), the group seems rather conventional and mundane.

Liz (played by a standout April Matthis) is an overmedicated mess, though it is never made clear why this is a growing concern. Len (Nat DeWolf) dreams of parenthood but seems rather asexual. Bama (a delightful droll Crystal Finn) needs a moment away from her family, but other than mere relaxation, who knows what is bubbling under the surface?

Ula (Maria Striar) split with her husband, but seems over it. The only true focus is on the somewhat complicated arrival of Adrian (Rob Campbell), the ex-boyfriend of Nina (a startling Annie Parisse), who is now married with two children and clearly carries a flame for the stoic Marlboro man. Only, he may have a phantasmagorical secret of his own.

Skylar Dunn and Azhy Robertson provide the voices of Nina's children, Casey and Wally, but the inclusion seem uninspired and thirty minutes of pre-recorded material, listless and lethargic. Under the helm of Ken Rus Schmoll, who recently directed Jenny Schwartz's equally perplexing "Iowa," elegiac epitaphs of children discovering the meaning of life and death are industrialized in a trite and cockeyed execution that inspires sighs and aching apprehension.

The true star is Rachel Hauck, the scenic designer behind the intergalactic set, which amalgamates sci-fi drama, gothic ghost story, coming-of-age and mystifying humor; though, you may need night vision goggles to see the set and the bigger picture in Washburn's tall-tale of dazed and confused middle-aged adults.

"Antlia Pneumatica" runs through April 24 at Playwrights Horizons/Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street (between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). For information or tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit www.phnyc.org/