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Hyde Park Theater does compelling job with a frustrating text

Emily Quigley,

In a recent episode of Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast, actor Paul Rudd spoke about his admiration for comedian Andy Kaufman’s mixture of provocative performance art and stand-up comedy, including early routines in which Kaufman would come out on stage, eat potatoes and go to sleep as his entire act. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s brilliant,'” Rudd said. This prompted Maron to reply, sardonically, “Unless you’re there.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Bakers newest work, “The Antipodes,” is a bit like that Andy Kaufman routine. It is, in theory and on the page, conceptually brilliant; in performance, it’s something one reacts to with (to quote Rudd on Kaufman) “an intellectual appreciation and an emotional annoyance.”

Hyde Park Theatre’s new production of “The Antipodes” is only the second staging of the play in the United States, following the original off-Broadway run in New York last year. Obtaining the rights for this show is a triumphant coup for Hyde Park Theatre, and director Ken Webster, a first-class design team and engaging cast of actors absolutely make the most of it. There are certainly moments of great hilarity and heartbreak within this staging “The Antipodes,” and much of that comes from the production choices more than the text itself.

The play is, essentially, plotless, and intentionally so. It follows a team of writers brainstorming ideas for a vague “project” (structured in the form of a TV writer’s room), sharing inappropriate stories of their lives as they attempt to do so. This is where Baker’s play is conceptually brilliant — it is a meditation on the nature of story that conscientiously resists becoming a story in and of itself, instead taunting the audience with crumbs to a wider narrative that never quite coheres. Even the tales that the writers tell to one another about their lives tend to be unsatisfying anecdotes or comedic riffs rather than actual stories, and they rarely have an impact upon their interrelationships as people.

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Although this is an intellectually fascinating exploration of the nature of story itself, the problem with a two-hour play about people telling bad stories is that ultimately the audience is sitting in a room for two hours listening to people tell bad stories.

Fortunately, in Hyde Park Theatre’s case, the storytellers are brilliant. The top-notch cast members, many of whom never leave the stage, consistently milk the text for every iota of entertainment and make remarkable use of Baker’s famous silent pauses to tell worlds of stories about their characters between the words. The slow-burning rage of Shanon Weaver’s Dave, for example, the sensitivity of Dave Yakubik’s Danny, the terrifying emotional vacancy of Blake Robbins’ Brian, or the resigned acceptance of the sexism Anne Hulsman’s Eleanor faces as the only woman in the room all create a more cohesive narrative arc than the play itself does.

Webster’s pitch-perfect casting, rapid-fire transitions and absolute trust in his actors ultimately results in a solid production of an unstable text that remains compelling even as it frustrates.

In many ways, “The Antipodes” feels like an unfinished play, both in and of itself and within Baker’s larger body of work. Between the abstract and absurdist elements of this text and the haunted trappings of her previous play, “John,” she is clearly interested in transitioning out of the extreme realism of her earlier, acclaimed work (such as “The Flick,” for which she won the Pulitzer). Where she ends up will, hopefully, be as brilliant as those previous plays, but “The Antipodes” feels like a bit of a transitory bump on the road between two periods, one that drama students in the future will love reading but not feel a burning desire to produce.

“The Antipodes”

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Aug. 4

Where: 511 W. 43rd St.

Cost: $22-$26