Annie Baker's new play, "The Antipodes," which is having its world premiere off-Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Center, gathers professional storytellers around a generic conference table to brainstorm until they either hit narrative gold or their boss "pulls the plug on them."
These characters could be TV writers hired to come up with the next "Game of Thrones." Or they could be working on a new movie franchise. Or perhaps a graphic novel series or even a fantasy video game.
All that Baker, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Flick," makes clear in this by turns tantalizing and frustrating work is that they are in the business of spinning yarns. Fiction is their occupation — a premise that allows this playwright, whose micro art finds drama in the interstices of stories, to slyly comment on a culture that fetishizes epic escape.
Sandy (Will Patton), the alpha dog ringleader who has been given the financial backing to start a new project after his success with something called "Heathens," is a self-styled guru in the profitable cult of storytelling. Wealth and power (meaning the ability to make others rich) have infused him with a magnetic authority.
"The rest of the world might be going to hell, but stories are better than ever," he tells the team in his slick pep talk. "And we've been given the opportunity to create something unprecedented. So let's make an impact."
A set of walking contradictions, Sandy announces that cellphones are off-limits but can't stop texting. He dons a baseball hat and speaks in low tones, but his casual demeanor can quickly turn menacing.
The other writers know they're in trouble when he doesn't respond to one of their suggestions. (His eventual absences unnerve them even more.) And for all his lip service about creating a safe space for imaginations to run free, when one of the two team members named Danny M (Danny McCarthy) shares hokey stories, Sandy quietly gets rid of him.
"The Antipodes" begins in a playful manner not unlike Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation." The characters don't play theater games, but they take turns sharing stories about themselves — the more embarrassingly intimate the better. This is all part of Sandy's belief that the "good stuff," the material that holds an audience rapt, comes from real-life experience.
Baker, examining the group dynamics under her high-powered microscope, has a good deal of fun exposing how the creative process has been unnaturally corporatized. The office is supplied with colorful cases of La Croix sparkling water — a sign that this uncompromising playwright sees these writers rooms as a cross. But Baker moves beyond the easy target of the entertainment industry to satirize the cultural mystification surrounding the art of storytelling.
Directed by Lila Neugebauer, "The Antipodes" is brought to life by a strong ensemble cast that features many different shades of masculinity. Danny Mastrogiorgio, who plays the more dominant Danny M, relates in rather disturbingly graphic detail the unsavory health consequences of an infidelity and the mysterious recovery that permitted him to keep it all a secret from his wife. ("This is good stuff," says Sandy.)
Phillip James Brannon's Adam, perhaps the most detached member of the group, rehashes his story of getting hit by lightning on the beach. When asked how it's changed him, he says that he feels as if he's now 98% human and 2% weather, but he refuses to show the resulting scar on his leg until he gets to know everyone a little better.
Josh Hamilton, in the appealingly diffident role of Josh, apologizes for bothering Sandy after bringing up the fact that months into the job he still doesn't have an ID and has yet to be paid. As Dave, Josh Charles tells the group about the way his father shot himself in the face after his mother walked out, only to make the story all about how great it was that this pain led him to Sandy. "And now I've got a great job and a decent apartment and a beautiful girlfriend who's like a normal, really sweet person," he says.
Holding her own in this maelstrom of male aggression, insecurity and servility is Eleanor (Emily Cass McDonnell), the lone female at the conference table. Her recollection of her first sexual experience baffles the guys, who don't know how to respond to her straightforward report of satisfying intimacy any more than they know how to relate to her Icelandic background, love of knitting or the revelation that she has tiny gills on her back.
The play, filled with eccentric touches from the start, gets stranger as it goes along. Sarah (Nicole Rodenburg), Sandy's young assistant who takes care of lunch and disrupts the sessions with messages from the suits, launches into a story ostensibly from her childhood that sounds like a tale out of the Brothers Grimm. (Rodenburg's delivery, combining vocal fry with rising inflection, intensifies the hilarious oddity.)
Even more bizarre, Brian (Brian Miskell), charged with taking notes, dabbles in odd pagan rituals during the small hours of an overnight session that has been forced on the group as a superstorm approaches days before a big deadline. The next morning he vomits up some kind of sea creature, which causes him to run out of the room in shame, pleading with everyone not to tell Sandy, who by this point has more or less checked out.
In "John," a play set in a quaintly eerie bed and breakfast, Baker flirted with occult suspense. Here, in a drama confined to a fluorescent room (conjured by lighting designer Tyler Micoleau and scenic designer Laura Jellinek), she edges into symbolist territory. Baker's signature hyper-realism makes room for an irrational dimension that lightly evokes the supernatural enigmas of Maurice Maeterlinck and August Strindberg.
"The Antipodes" feels like a transitional play. Baker hasn't quite worked out the balance between the slow-motion observational style of "The Aliens" and "The Flick" and the more daring non-naturalistic flourishes that she gave us a taste of in "John."
A rambling monologue by a sleep-deprived Adam in which he spins his own creation myth excites the room but tests the patience of the audience. The dramatic journey, delightful in its micro moments, keeps doubling back on itself in a way that is ultimately more intellectually intriguing than theatrically satisfying.
The characters in "The Antipodes" spend time giddily taxonomizing the various types of stories as they fail to come up with any for Sandy, who begins to wonder whether this might be "the worst possible time in the history of the world to be telling stories." Baker lets every side have its say. Her storytellers may be tapped out, but the compulsion to turn chaos into narrative order will never die.
Follow me @charlesmcnulty