Theater Review: ‘Antlia Pneumatica’

Friends to the end?
April 4, 2016 Updated: April 4, 2016

 

NEW YORK—Don’t be frustrated if you don’t know what the title means. You’ll find out in good time. No, your science professor has not betrayed you.

On a ranch in the Texas Hill Country, a group of friends gather to hold a funeral service for Sean, one of their number who has recently died. Although they haven’t seen him in years, well, friends remain friends somehow.

A man named Adrian phones. Nina (Annie Parisse) takes the call and invites Adrian to join them. He’s one of the friends, after all. He’ll come a bit later.

How truly objective are any of us?

The group members, having scattered over the years, mostly to either coast—New York or California—haven’t seen each other too recently either.

Here they generally spend time at the kitchen island, where food is being prepared. Besides Nina, there are Ula (Maria Striar) and Liz (April Matthis). A few more are expected.

It’s pretty much small talk at first. Ula is annoyed with Nina for storing up jars and jars of mustard, yet they’ve run out of eggs. They talk of the Blue Hole, the swimming hole on the property, about which Liz expresses fear of jumping into water where “you can’t see the bottom.”

Nina’s two young children—Casey, age 7 and Wally, age 5—stay offstage but are sometimes heard over the loudspeaker making comments or singing. This includes their rendition of “Yellow Submarine,” which contains a line, enthusiastically projected, to the effect that they can do as they please.

ANTLIA PNEUMATICA PLAYWRIGHTS HORIZONS/PETER JAY SHARP THEATER 416 WEST 42ND STREET, NEW YORK Cast: Rob Campbell, Nat DeWolf, Crystal Finn, April Matthis, Annie Parisse, Maria Striar, Skylar Dunn, Azhy Robertson. Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll.
(L–R) Crystal Finn, April Matthis, Nat DeWolf, Annie Parisse, and Maria Striar appear in Anne Washburn’s “Antlia Pneumatica.” (Joan Marcus)

Len (Nat DeWolf) joins them. But it is the arrival of Adrian (Rob Campbell) that stirs the pot. There’s electricity in the air as he is Nina’s former boyfriend and later unexpectedly visits her in her cabin one night. She quickly shoos him away, but Ula is shocked when Nina reports the incident to her.

Ambiguity suffuses the Nina/Adrian relationship. Will it rekindle? And where is Nina’s husband, Adam? Or are they even still together?

Later, Sean’s ashes are delivered. Shockingly, Sean’s remains are enclosed in a small, unattractive white carton box, not in something of brass and attractive. But, Len explains, one has to order that in advance, and no one has done so.

Did Sean leave a will? No, just a document stating what’s to be done with his remains and what property he owns. He was a writer, but apparently destroyed all his work. He never married and was childless.

ANTLIA PNEUMATICA PLAYWRIGHTS HORIZONS/PETER JAY SHARP THEATER 416 WEST 42ND STREET, NEW YORK Cast: Rob Campbell, Nat DeWolf, Crystal Finn, April Matthis, Annie Parisse, Maria Striar, Skylar Dunn, Azhy Robertson. Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll.
Adrian (Rob Campbell) and Nina (Annie Parisse) may renew their former relationship. (Joan Marcus)

Len, drawn into this discussion, reluctantly admits that he too will die and must prepare a similar document.

Later, the box of Sean’s ashes disappears from the kitchen island where it had been placed.

In a tender, evocative scene, Adrian insists that Nina join him outdoors one night. Here the stars blaze vividly (courtesy of lighting designer Tyler Micoleau), unlike in cities where they are barely visible. A major galaxy is readily identified. But there is another, an important one, Adrian insists. It’s called Antlia Pneumatica, meaning “air pump,” so named by a French astronomer in the 1700s.

Then Adrian goes a step further: He selects a small galaxy and names it “the Nina.” Perhaps this is the closest that Adrian can come to admitting his feelings for Nina.

The disappearance of Sean’s ashes is never discussed further.

Finally, there is the late arrival of Bama (Crystal Finn), another group member. She tells of a startling incident involving Adrian. It may or may not be true.

The entire cast gathers onstage to sing a song. The play ends.

Playwright Anne Washburn mixes the real with the unreal.

In this play by Anne Washburn, there are elements of the film “The Big Chill.” Such comment is even made by Playwrights Horizons’s artistic director, Tim Sanford, in the program notes. I also sense tinges of Irish playwright Conor McPherson, with his frequent touches of unreality and ghost stories.

Washburn mixes the real with the unreal; there are intangibles that can only be felt but not proven. There is memory—and how it sometimes plays tricks with us. And how truly objective are any of us?

Director Ken Rus Schmoll has done particularly effective work here. His was the difficult task of creating interest in a situation where so little actor movement can be utilized. He appeared to have virtually choreographed the staging with every movement and gesture calculated precisely.

There is fine ensemble work throughout; I particularly liked Rob Campbell’s somewhat mysterious Adrian. Young Skylar Dunn and Azhy Robertson do fine offstage readings as Nina’s children.

A provocative, deliberately ambiguous play.

‘Antlia Pneumatica’
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd St.
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes  (no intermission)
Tickets:  212-279-4200 or TicketCentral.com
Closes: April 24

Diana Barth writes for several publications, including New Millennium. She may be contacted at diabarth@juno.com