Eight people sit around a conference table. It’s shiny, oval. Above their heads is a series of concentric curves, a corporate notion of decoration. In the corner is a huge pile of cardboard cases of bottled mineral water. This is a workplace of sorts – but the meeting, which will drag on for days, weeks, months, will become messy with the innards of these employees’ emotional lives.
In an Annie Baker play, everything has meaning and nothing is quite what it seems. This, her latest, is no exception, and as it spools out in leisurely manner over its unbroken two-hour running time it seems to swell, becoming pregnant with possibility. Co-directed by the author and Chloe Lamford, who is also the designer, it is almost frighteningly fascinating. There is a sense of something profound at stake, and also of a darkness that we cannot penetrate – the murk, perhaps, of our own mortality.
On the surface, what appears to be happening is a high-level writers’ room brainstorming session. The colleagues at the table – some of their accents American, some British, one of them female, one of them black, the rest all white men – are engaged in attempting to wrestle an original, or at least compelling, story from their collective experiences. They are led by Sandy (Conleth Hill), big, bluff and bearded, and as time passes, increasingly a bully. He, meanwhile, is answerable to Max – an urbane, unseen presence whom we assume to be a movie studio head, and who communicates with the room through a broadcast that they watch wearing futuristic virtual reality goggles.
They order takeaway meals and drink the water. And at Sandy’s rather vicious prompting, they share memories, mostly intimate, often compromising or explicit. Certain evocative images relating to creativity recur: Eleanor (Sinead Matthews), the sole woman on the team, peels and munches sulphurous hard-boiled eggs, while Sandy announces his wife is ill, her ovary “exploded.” It’s what sounds like an excuse for his sudden frequent absences. Alongside these queasy reproductive motifs, Eleanor knits, too, her thread recalling the classical Fates – and we wonder if these are a bunch of dysfunctional deities, plotting out our human existence back on Earth from some Olympian eyrie. They muse about time – the possibility of alternative dimensions, alternative realities. How many of them are lying, or inventing what they pass off as authentic events? Sarah (Imogen Doel), Sandy’s attentive secretary, begins to seem like a benevolent jailor – and she spins a macabre tale of her own, one that owes much to the Russian fairytale ‘Baba Yaga’ and is full of death and frightened children.
Greek mythology and the Bible are just two of the sources plundered for scraps of narrative here, alongside any number of TV shows and movies, from cop shows to soaps, rom coms, indie flicks, horror and thrillers. And there are shards of satire: Eleanor points out that Sandy’s nervy young assistant never bothers to take notes when either she or Fisayo Akinade’s Adam (the tellingly named sole delegate of colour) are speaking. Outside, meanwhile, in a hint of environmental apocalypse, the weather is “crazy.” Power shifts constantly. Seizing control of the threads of the plots they’re trying to spin becomes exhausting, unsustainable, and yet on and on they go. They cannot stop until they run out of story, and their predicament gradually emerges as more infernal than divine.
Some may find this intricate cobweb of illusion and allusion flimsy or frustrating, but it is woven from the delicate stuff of our existence, where Baker finds mystery and magic. It is devilishly, divinely playful and, in its quiet, insistent way, not a little terrifying.