Anne Washburn writes weird plays, and “Antlia Pneumatica” is no exception, although it does seem more grounded in reality than her post-apocalyptic “Mr. Burns.” In this world premiere at Playwrights Horizons, childhood friends who meet over a funeral feast (see: “The Big Chill”) to eulogize a departed member of their group waste considerable stage time catching up on other old friends we never meet. And once they start to ponder the astrophysical mysteries of time and space, they become lost in the stars, leaving us to wonder if we dreamed them all up.
The food, at least, is real. “Funeral spells food,” says Nina (the perpetually radiant Annie Parisse), who is overseeing the preparation of the feast at her late father’s ranch in Texas Hill Country. Nina’s younger sister Liz (April Matthis) and friend Ula (Maria Striar, so natural she might as well live here) are helping with the meal, which should feed up to a dozen friends of Sean’s — Sean being the deceased, whose ashes arrive in a plain white box and are soon misplaced.
Although director Ken Rus Schmoll (a regular of the downtown theater scene ) has staged the play in Playwrights’ intimate second stage, the tech work is as slick as any mainstage production. Rachel Hauck’s eloquent set is a model of simplicity. The A-frame beams hanging overhead, the greening tree branches bowing low inside the cabin, and the oversized kitchen island centered in the middle of the stage are all it takes to bring the audience inside the favorite room in the house. Jessica Pabst’s costumes are so kitchen-casual you want to toss them in the washer.
This is a welcoming home. The question is who, exactly, is welcome. Definitely not Nina’s old boyfriend, Adrian (Rob Campbell), who hasn’t shown his face for 16 years but has somehow heard about Sean’s death and invited himself to the funeral feast. Although a lot of guests seem to be canceling, good-natured Len (Nat DeWolf) is a friendly face, and screwball Bama (Crystal Finn) pops up out of nowhere to drop a narrative bombshell. But this is not a brainy bunch, and much of their chit-chat is mindless.
Somebody named Don also might be coming, and maybe he can shake these people out of their conversational torpor. But there’s some confusion about whether “strange, creepy” Don is alive or dead. According to Adrian, Don is doing well selling real estate in Corpus Christi. But then, there was also a rumor floating around that Adrian himself had died.
Nina’s two children aren’t particularly wanted at this grownup affair, so they’re safely tucked out of sight. Their voices are heard, though, in a few of the off-stage exchanges conducted entirely in the dark, a device that Washburn uses with a skill that makes the most prosaic dialogue sound portentous. One extended scene between Nina and Adrian, held under a sky full of stars, registers as both sexy and spooky. (Credit the cool tech work to lighting designer Tyler Micoleau and soundsmith Leah Gelpe).
Although nobody seems to give a hoot about Sean, preparing his funeral service makes them all think of their own mortality. Being cremated and thrown to the winds, like Sean, might be the only immortality we get. “You’re sort of everywhere,” once your ashes are scattered, Nina points out. “You can’t be pinned down to one location or sentiment.”
Some characters can’t even be pinned down to a single plane of reality. “You’re a dim, dwindled memory, and you’re also right here,” Adrian tells Nina, who senses the dream-like nature of their reunion. “You’re going to fade away again, aren’t you?” she realizes.
It sounds like an audience challenge, trying to identify the ghosts among the dreamers. But with the exception of Nina, the characters are so superficially drawn, there’s not enough substance to them to distinguish the living from the dead.