by Ron Cohen · November 24, 2013
Indie Artists on New Plays #24: Ron Cohen looks at And Away We Go by Terrence McNally continuing at The Pearl Theatre Company until December 15
It’s hardly the height of originality to say so, but Terrence McNally’s And Away We Go is a veritable love letter to the theater. There are, however, no better words to describe this engaging new work by one of the more celebrated and prolific contemporary American playwrights. McNally has, of course, written such letters before to both the theatre and its musicalized persona, opera, sometimes ironically, sometimes with overwhelming affection. In his It’s Only a Play, from 1986, he took a satirical look at the backstage hysteria accompanying an opening night on Broadway. In And Away We Go, McNally celebrates the behind-the-scenes dramas at various forms of repertory companies, striving through the ages to create and keep alive the classics of dramatic literature. And it’s fitting that the play is being presented by one such New York company, The Pearl, as it celebrates its 30th anniversary
While McNally has his fun poking holes through theatrical foibles and traditions, his deep feelings for the milieu of his chosen profession are never to be doubted. At the start of the show, each of its six actors, as directed in the script, come forward, bend down or kneel to kiss the stage, and, as if to start the connection with the audience, give their real names, a brief history of their acting careers, and some interesting factoid about their lives. The play then moves to ancient Athens, backstage at the Theatre of Dionysus, where The Orestia is being performed. There’s a mask maker, some actors and relatives on hand, to debate the difficulties of emoting behind masks and the rules limiting performers to males. The scene eventually shifts to the Globe Theatre in 1610 London, where various members of the legendary Burbage stage family have gathered, as Shakespeare’s The Tempest is being rehearsed, and then to the Royal Theatre, Versailles, France, where a playwright and his actors are incensed when the King’s censor comes backstage to ask that certain possibly seditious lines be cut. The next stop is the Moscow Art Theatre in 1896, where actors have come together for the first rehearsal read-through of a new revision of The Seagull, while a cleaning lady and a food delivery boy threaten the cataclysmic revolution to come. The penultimate episode takes place at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida in 1956, the final night of the disastrous American premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, starring the comic headliner Bert Lahr. The play left audiences either befuddled or furious, or both. Finally, McNally takes us to present-day America, with a resident theatre company on the brink of financial disaster. And there are instances when characters from different eras get together as well, as if signifying the bond that exists from one generation of theatre people to the next. This concept is particularly telling when people from across the centuries gather round to comfort a young actor dying of a disease that’s presumably AIDS.
But for the most part, McNally squeezes great humor out of the tribulations and pretensions of theater folk. There are, to be sure, some familiar jokes (aren’t there always, when actors get together?), but there are also some killer ones directed at such folks as Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett. Other targets are the efforts of producers and performers to please audiences and the naiveté of young theater hopefuls. One of the biggest laughs at the performance I attended came when an aspiring actress declares: “I’m hoping to join Actors Equity. Once I’ve joined Equity, everything’s going to be so much easier.“
Director Jack Cummings III brings McNally’s script to life with a sure hand, infused with theatrical verve, and his actors acquit themselves beautifully as they depict the changing times, costumed simply in contemporary street clothes. The French and Russian accents are at times a bit too broad, but it matters little when measured against the depth and breadth the actors bring to their multiple roles. And each has an array of shining moments. Carol Schultz is especially touching as a theater company’s executive director breaking bad news of the theatre’s potential demise to her board members, while Dominic Cuskern quietly captures the poignancy of the company‘s eldest actor realizing he will never have the opportunity to play Lear. Sean McNall wonderfully reveals every rattled nerve behind the excessive bonhomie of an artistic director explaining to the audience in a pre-show address why the season is being downsized.
Micah Stock rails with explosive fury against the frustrations of performing in a Greek chorus, and Rachel Botchan depicts with infectious energy the yearnings of a young woman, both in ancient Greece and 17th Century London, to break tradition and get a chance to act. Donna Lynne Champlin scores mightily in such varied turns as a giddy and generous theatre board member and the take-no-prisoners, ex-chorus girl wife of Bert Lahr.
Sandra Goldmark’s set is an eye-grabbing visualization of the play’s theme. It‘s a hodge-podge of stage furniture and costumes, with a collection of colorful chandeliers glittering in the center, while R. Lee Kennedy‘s lighting adroitly helps to shift its moods.
All in all, this brave and well-realized taking on of a new play by a noted playwright of our times adds immeasurably to this Pearl’s luster.