05 December 2013

'And Away We Go'

A few weeks ago, while my theater companion Diana and I were working out the schedule for some performances coming up this season, she raised the issue of an announced new play by Terrence McNally at the Pearl Theatre Company.  Now, I'm not a huge fan of McNally, winner of many theater awards including two Obies (Bad Habits, 1974; Love! Valour! Compassion!, 1995) and four Tonys (Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1993; Love! Valour! Compassion!, 1995; Master Class, 1996; Ragtime, 1998), and I'd never seen anything at the Pearl that I liked, but I hadn't been to that theater in a long, long time and Diana wanted to see the new play, so I thought it'd be worth a look.  So on the afternoon of 27 November, the day before Thanksgiving (that's right, a matinee, which Diana usually hates—because that's the only performance available considering both Diana's and my conflicts), we met at the Peter Norton Space on far west 42nd Street, the current home of the Pearl, to see And Away We Go, the world première of McNally’s latest work which opened on 24 November and is scheduled to close on 15 December.  (Previews for the short run began on 12 November.)

After decades of moving from neighborhood to neighborhood in Manhattan, including Theater 80 on St. Marks Place in the East Village and New York City Center Stage II in the Theatre District, the Pearl opened its first permanent home in October 2012, the Peter Norton located at 555 West 42nd Street (where the Signature Theatre Company used to be).  The troupe, which bills itself as “the only theatre in New York City with a Resident Company fully comprised of Actors’ Equity members,” was founded in 1984 and, in its own words, “has produced a body of work encompassing the full breadth of theatre history, from ancient Greek tragedy to contemporary works rooted in the classics.”  The production was postponed from its original dates last April and May in response to a shortfall in a quarter-million-dollar fundraising effort this spring, but the company’s supporters have partially filled the gap that had put the troupe in a precarious situation. 

McNally, 75 last  3 November, was born in St. Petersburg, Florida, but raised in Corpus Christi, Texas (the setting—and one level of the title-reference—for his controversial 1998 play, Corpus Christi).  He moved to New York City in 1956 to go to Columbia University (class of 1960, Phi Beta Kappa).  He went to Mexico after graduating to work on his writing, returning to New York when a play he’d submitted to the Actors Studio was rejected for production but attracted the Studio’s attention to his potential.  Openly gay, he began a personal and professional association with Edward Albee and later actor Robert Drivas.  (McNally is now married, since 2010, to Thomas Kirdahy, a public-interest lawyer, following a seven-year civil union.) 

What would have been the writer’s first major project was the 1968 musical Here's Where I Belong, but the book writer had his name removed from the credits.  (The show closed after a single performance.)  He gained critical attention for his Off-Broadway plays like Next (1969) and The Ritz (1975), and became recognized as a presence on the American stage with 1987’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune Off-Broadway (and the successful 1991 film adaptation starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer).  In 2002, the play was revived on Broadway for 243 performances.

McNally’s gone on to win acclaim for both the books of musicals (The Rink, 1984; Kiss of the Spider Woman; Ragtime) and non-musical scripts (The Lisbon Traviata, 1989; Lips Together, Teeth Apart, 1991; Love! Valour! Compassion!); McNally even won a 1990 Emmy for Andre's Mother, an AIDS-related tale broadcast on the PBS series American Playhouse.  Then in 1998, the playwright stirred up a storm of protests and counter-protests with Corpus Christi, his contemporary retelling of Jesus’ birth, ministry, and death in which Jesus and his disciples are all depicted as gay. 

The Catholic Church condemned the play, death threats were sent to McNally (who even received a fatwa) and the Manhattan Theatre Club, the company producing the première, and anyone connected to the production.  Right-wing pundits and commentators wrote against the play—without ever having seen or even read it—and leftists defended it on principal, also before any public performance or the publication of the text.  (I have written about this incident in “The First Amendment & The Arts” on ROT; see 8 May 2010.)  The theater postponed the presentation, but First Amendment advocates and theater artists across the country objected to the cave-in and the play was rescheduled.  Subsequent productions of Corpus Christi have attracted similar controversy, including legal action to prevent public money from being spent on them at institutions that receive federal or state subsidies.  (Some suits have been defeated by the productions’ backers and others have succeeded.)

McNally has won, in addition to the Tonys, Obies, and the Emmy, many other awards, including Lucille Lortels and Drama Desks.  He was also nominated for a 1994 Pulitzer Prize for A Perfect Ganesh.  His last Broadway project was the book for the 2011 musical Catch Me If You Can; a revival of Master Class was mounted that year as well.  (The musical won several Tony and Drama Desk nominations—and one Tony Award—but none for the book.)  Off-Broadway, McNally wrote Golden Age, a 2009 play about Italian opera that was staged by MTC here in 2012; he also has this year’s Mothers and Sons, which premièred at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, in June and is slated to be staged on Broadway next year starring Tyne Daly.

Previously presented on 12 August 2012 at the Ojai Playwrights Conference in California, And Away We Go is reportedly McNally’s first play composed for an ensemble of actors and the playwright celebrates theater history, classic theater, actors and acting troupes (like The King’s Men and the Moscow Art Theater), and the Pearl itself.  In a statement, the dramatist acknowledged that the classical acting companies to which his play pays tribute were “much like The Pearl” which, McNally feels, has had a “commitment to . . . the challenge of finding new life and relevance in the great plays of the past, many of them written specifically for companies” like the one that commissioned And Away We Go.  The playwright explained that the new work is “a summation of what I've learned watching theater.”  A play with a serious tone but humorous touches, “It’s also stylistically very different than anything I've ever done.” 

And Away We Go is a theater melodrama—metadrama, if you will.  (Be assured, folks: despite the familiar ring to the play’s title—for those of us of a certain age—McNally isn’t telling the story of Jackie Gleason, otherwise known as The Great One.)  As the Pearl’s blurb says, “Times change but life in the theatre remains the same.”  The play time-travels through theater history from the Theater of Dionysos in ancient Athens, a backstage look at Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (458 BCE), to a rehearsal of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at The Globe Theatre in Jacobean 1610, from the royal theater at Versailles (where several of Molière’s plays were presented) on the eve of an uprising against Louis XV, to the first reading of Chekhov’s revised The Seagull (1898), and a stop at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Coral Gables, Florida, where the American première of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is about to close as a colossal flop in January 1956.  Occasionally, as the periods accumulate, characters from one era bleed into an earlier or later one, bending the minds of not only us spectators, but the folks of the invaded time on stage.  Interspersed among the scenes depicting the historic theater milestones are scenes of a contemporary theater that’s facing financial disaster, laying off staff, and, eventually, canceling its upcoming season—until a well-heeled patron and board member comes through with a big check.  (Why, it’s just like the recent history of the Pearl!  You don’t suppose . . .?)

It all sounds like such fun, especially for someone hooked on theater.  New York Timesman Charles Isherwood declares that “fellow adorers of theater will find much to divert them” in McNally’s amusement, and Elisabeth Vincentelli emphasizes in the New York Post that it’s “aimed at card-carrying members of the Drama Club.”  (This lines up with Diana’s assessment of the play’s appeal.  Its target audience, she figured, is college theater students.  I’ll predict that if McNally publishes And Away We Go, it will become a favorite for college and high school theater departments.)  I not only expected to have fun that afternoon despite the nasty weather out in the real world, but I really wanted to.  As the first scene unfolded, the faux-Greek tragedy in prep, and into the second, The Globe in the process of staging The Tempest, I was really trying to have fun as McNally and the cast played with theater history.  I'm sorry to report, though, that McNally's theater folly isn't as good as I’d anticipated (hoped?) or as Isherwood found it.  I'll do details in a bit, but it's too long at an hour-and-fifty-minutes without intermission, and very repetitive once the pattern’s been set.  It's not just a matter of the length of time I had to sit in the theater (the recent Julius Caesar at St Ann’s Warehouse was much more excruciating in that regard; see my report on ROT, 15 October), but it's too long for the material to sustain.  I'll try to explain this shortly, but McNally has very little substantial to say—the play's just a paean to actors and acting troupes; there's no subtext—so after a while, there's little to listen to in his “valentine to theater,” as Vincentelli calls it.

McNally isn’t really telling us anything about either theater or the lives of actors (except that they live a dog’s life, the playwright quips in passing).  As Isherwood writes, he “plants a big kiss on his lifelong love”  and hopes that the rest of us delight in his fillip as much as he does.  Vincentelli observes that “few people are as convinced of their calling’s importance as actors,” but that’s really true of all theater folk—not omitting playwrights (though I’m not convinced it isn’t also true of a lot of other professions as well).  The performance even opens with a reality scene in which the actual actors in the company, after ritually kissing the stage floor, introduce themselves to us and briefly tell us about their theater lives.  There's no subtext, nothing going on except the send-up, so after a short while, there's little to listen to.  I tried to amuse myself by seeing how many of the dropped play titles I could identify—not the ones named by the characters as plays they’ve done, will do, like, or don’t care for, but the ones whose titles are used as phrases in the dialogue, like when one of the members of the Godot company calls Florida (the U.S. première was in a suburb of Miami) “the warm peninsula.”  (It’s a 1960 play by Joe Masteroff.  Few people outside the theater world know it because it only ran 86 performances.  Inside joke.)  I found I couldn’t even concentrate on that and I forgot the ones I did catch.  (I had the same problem with some emblematic lines I thought I might quote in this report—but I can’t recall them, either!  Think I’m getting old?)  Ultimately, the idea for And Away We Go is cleverer that the play ends up being. 

The repetitiousness comes about because once McNally sets up his conceit, that each scene will be an imaginary recreation of a seminal moment in the development of Western theater, they all tend to fall into the same basic shape.  Oh, the women backstage in the Greek and Jacobean scenes aren’t actors (Heaven forfend!), the Versailles scene is limned as a sex-farce (with mentions even of a Monsieur de Sade, whose about to become a Marquis and has a yen for one of the male actors), and the Coconut Grove scene centers on a failed production instead of an imminent success, but the basic outline remains the same enough that not much new happens.  The accents change (and I’ll have a word or two to say about that in a moment), but the sentiment stays the same.  The characters in the Athens vignette are all fictional, of course (we don’t know any of the names of the actors of classic Greece; even Thespis, the legendary first actor whose name is dropped, is a mythical figure), but they fit the same roles as the historical actors like the Burbage family at The Globe and Bert Lahr in Miami, and we know that the characters in Moscow are supposed to be Stanislavsky’s MAT company even if their names aren’t used.  There are the same egos, squabbles, jealousies, romances, and so on—though sometimes the players are remixed.  (In Florida, the romance is between the understudy and the concessionaire-cum-nascent playwright, both men.  They turn up again in the 1980s as the actor dies of AIDS in a scene that’s dropped in totally unnecessarily and out of place.)  I guess this is McNally’s definitive illustration that “[t]imes change but life in the theatre remains the same,” as the Pearl’s advertising asserts.  It’s a little like playing with paper dolls—the form is the same but you get to put different clothes on them.

I’d like to report that the production makes up for the emptiness of the script, as shallow and repetitive as that was.  Unhappily, there are some performance problems as well.  The cast is generally competent, though no one really stands out or makes the flat characters sparkle.  (I said I’ve never seen anything at the Pearl that I liked, and the reason has been that the productions have been directed and acted wanly and without inspiration.  For that reason, I won’t single out any actors or performances in this report.)  McNally’s writing for an ensemble and at the same time praising ensemble troupes, but I felt that the way to bring this divertissement to life on the stage was to cast really brilliant actors, the calibers of, say, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (who just happen to be showing off their virtuosic chops on Broadway right now in a two-play rep that includes, coincidentally, Waiting for Godot) and just letting them riff on the roles like jazz musicians.  Elisabeth Vincentelli picks up on this, suggesting that “some star turns would have certainly spiced things up.”  I couldn’t agree more. 

Now, about those accents I said I’d get to.  First of all, why use them, except to let the actors have the fun of playing with them?  A bunch of French and Russian theater people wouldn’t stand around backstage and engage in heavily accented badinage in English, would they?  The Greek actors didn’t have Greek accents in the first scene.  I imagine that when Olga Knipper chatted with Stanislavsky, they did it in Russian—without accents.  Second, if the actors are going to do accents, let’s make sure the words all get out through the mush.  I lost a word here and there throughout the performance, but in the accented scenes, I lost phrases and even entire lines.  (I won’t complain about the overall quality of the accents—but one actor actually sounded like he was channeling Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau for his French.  Now, really.  At least when I had to do a Cockney dialect on stage, I channeled Michael Caine, an authentic Cockney!)

I should make some mention of the direction of the Pearl’s And Away We Go, however brief.  Transport Group’s artistic director Jack Cummings III, new to the Pearl, has something of a reputation for working in site-specific productions, including The Audience, 2005; The Boys in the Band, 2010; and Hello, Again, 2011, with five Drama Desk Award nominations.  I don’t know his work at all, however, and though he seems to have kept McNally’s play moving along, he didn’t turn in anything I’d rate as extraordinary in either the translation of the script to the stage or the work of his cast.  I can’t pick any nits in his presentation here, but neither can I find anything worthy of special praise—much the same as I found with the acting.  (I suppose he has to take some responsibility for the mushy accent work of which I complained earlier.)  I don’t know for certain whether the production’s opening ritual in which the actors each introduce themselves, tell us their favorite and least favorite roles, and then reveal a little personal truth—not always particularly telling, though I presume this detail changes some from performance to performance—was his devising or McNally’s, but though some reviewers liked it, both Diana and I found it tiresome and uninteresting.  The play’s about lauding actors and I understand that this is an exercise in letting actors show themselves as real and ordinary people, a peek behind the mask, so to speak, but it adds little to the production as far as I’m concerned, no matter how well motivated. (I mean, how does it help me to know that one actress’s least-favorite gig is the Greek choruses in which she participated?)

The physical production may be the star of the show.  Sandra Goldmark’s organized-clutter set took most of the reviews I read, and it was the one thing about which my companion, Diana, commented as she sat down.  (Later, Diana had more questions and criticisms than compliments.)  A wide-open space that spans the width of the stage, the set is a combination green room, dressing and make-up room, costume-and-prop storage (which contains an unbelievable number and variety of lamps and shades—what plays did this company do that accumulated so many light fixtures, I wonder), mask workshop (for the Greeks), rehearsal studio, meeting room, and bull pen.  If the work of the theater takes place on the stage, its life takes pace here—and all around are the leavings to prove it.  It’s also a playpen for the Pearl’s actors who live in it and fight in it as if it was the only place where they felt they belonged.  On another plane, Kathryn Rohe’s costumes are as simple as can be: street clothes.  No matter what period or role the cast members embodied, they all wore ordinary, 21st-century street drag.  This conceit united the scenes into McNally’s central notion, that all actors are kin, and it allowed the bleed-over of one era to another, as well as the frequent time-warps the dramatist slipped in.  (Bits and pieces of character or period attire is used from time to time—such as the headscarf the Russian backstage charwoman wears—and occasionally these show up in a sight gag as well. ) I’m afraid I feel a little like I did way back when I was in college and a schoolmate and I went to a nearby campus to see a play.  I no longer remember what the play was, but I remember quipping to my friend as we left the theater, “What a great set.  Too bad the actors kept getting in front of it!”  The Pearl’s And Away We Go wasn’t in anything like that category, of course, but still . . . .

The press coverage of the new play has been spotty (though some weeklies may not have published yet).  Of the daily papers, only the Times and the News ran reviews.  Isherwood calls And Away We Go “a time-traveling romp” in his Times notice, characterizing the play as “overstuffed and halfway to haywire” (which he doesn’t seem to mean as a fault).  He finds the Pearl production of McNally’s “loose and loopy comedy,” as staged by Jack Cummings, “handsomely mounted.”  Though the Times reviewer deems that “[m]uch of it is enjoyably silly,” he also acknowledges that “a certain exhaustion sets in.”  He took “much delight in watching the cast zip nimbly between periods and players,” calling them “terrific.”  The Post’s Vincentelli suggests that anyone who doesn’t “smile knowingly at a reference to former Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr playing Beckett in Florida” might consider that “it’s time to fire up Hulu.”  Although she finds the acting “fine,” she observes that “it also tends to be workmanlike,” which is sort of how I found it.  I like Vincentelli’s last line: “In the end, the best love letter to the theater simply is . . . a good play.”

In “Goings On About Town,” the New Yorker laments that And Away We Go “is curiously bereft of insight or emotion” and concludes that “this play is plodding, and not as revealingly ‘inside’ as it wants to be.”  In Entertainment Weekly, Jason Clark declares that the playwright “continues his love affair with backstage stories, but this time with diminishing returns,” calling the play “mystifyingly schizophrenic.”  Clark writes, “[E]very lumbering scene seems to boil down to one of two capital-P Points: Theater is Always in Trouble or Theater Fills the Soul,” and director Cummings “seems to be at a total loss of how to make sense of the material.”  The cast, “mostly screechy hams fumbling with McNally's thudding text,” says the EW writer, has similar difficulties.  Diane Snyder in Time Out New York declares that McNally “loosely knits together a series of sketches for a play that’s lovingly made, but not an exemplar of craftsmanship,” though she asserts that it gives the Pearl cast “a prime opportunity” to show off their acting chops.  “There are some hearty laughs,” notes Snyder, “but it’s easy to drown in the details without absorbing the resonance.”  Goldmark’s set, the woman from TONY writes, however, is “a beautiful cathedral to the endurance of theater.”
On the web, Huffington Post’s reviewer David Finkle acknowledges, “There’s much to recommend in And Away We Go,” but adds that “McNally does go on—and on and on and yet on.”  Though Finkle finds pleasure in McNally’s jokes, including the inside ones, he also warns prospective theatergoers that “each of the segments exceeds its staying power,” which pretty much echoes my own assessment.  Overall, the playwright “has so much he wants to say,” observes the HP reviewer, “that he’s determined to get it all in.”  “This backstage journey is lots of fun,” pronounces CurtainUp reviewer Elyse Sommer, calling some of the theater gibes “particular funny bone ticklers.”  “I suppose And Away We Go will appeal mostly to frequent theater goers who will ‘get’ all the allusions,” concludes Sommer, but she finds the whole production exemplary.  “Theater nerds, rejoice!” warns Pete Hempstead on TheaterMania.  “All others?  Well, you may find yourself a bit confused when you see Terrence McNally’s new play.”  But he continues that the “rollicking production, which gambols higgledy–piggledy through the history of histrionics, can delight if you know what to look for.”  Hempstead sums up the play’s concept by explaining, “All of this switching, not to mention the frequent intersections of timelines, prevents the audience from having the faintest clue where the play is going.  Yet,” the TheaterMania writer adds, “one often has the feeling that it is progressing toward something satisfying.”  He concludes that it does.  And Away We Go delivers the goods in the end,” insists Hempstead.  Calling McNally’s “love letter to the theater” an “engaging new work,” Ron Cohen, posting on nytheater now, praises the company’s efforts as a “brave and well-realized taking on of a new play.”

[I don’t usually append closing comments to a performance report, and I only occasionally take exception to the published reviews and promotional material put out by the theater.  I’m going to break that policy this time because I kept running into small factual mistakes as I looked into the production.  They’re not serious, and have little to do with the reception of the play or its comprehension.  But I’m something of a theater historian—not only have I studied it, as most theater pros have, but I’ve taught it.  I want to set the record straight for anyone who reads ROT, so at least some people will get the facts right.

[Some writers have put the Russian backstage scene in 1896, which is the year that Chekhov’s Seagull premièred.  That would seem to be correct at first glance.  But the characters make very clear that their staging of the play isn’t the first one: the first mounting had been a disaster, they tell us.  Theater students will know that The Seagull was first staged unsuccessfully in St. Petersburg in 1896 and flopped so badly that the play was virtually dismissed and Chekhov’s career and reputation looked to have been derailed.  In 1898, however, Konstantin Stanislavsky directed the play at the Moscow Art Theater and turned it into a resounding success.  Although McNally’s script doesn’t identify the company or the players in the Seagull rehearsal, it must be set in 1898, two years after the St. Petersburg failure.

[At Versailles, though the characters are fictional and the play being performed for the king is not identified, it probably isn’t the court of Louis XVI on the eve of the French Revolution of 1789.  First of all, there are members of the company who worked with Molière, who died in 1673, over a hundred years before the revolution.  It might be the Versailles of Louis XIV, who reigned until 1715, but the key clue is the fact that the audience includes a young Monsieur de Sade whom the king’s censor says is about to become a Marquis.  That happened at the death of de Sade’s father in 1767—and the monarch at that time was Louis XV (reigned 1715-74).  It’s a stretch for an actress to have worked with Molière and still been on stage 94 years later, but perhaps she was very young when she started and perhaps de Sade was farther way from inheriting his father’s title than the censor intimates.  (De Sade was, of course, around for the revolution—he died in 1814—but he was already a marquis for a long time by then.  Also, from 1768 on, he was often in exile away from Paris or on the run abroad because of his sexual exploits; in 1777, he was imprisoned.  It’s unlikely he’d have been invited to Versailles at any time after his notoriety had reached scandalous levels.)

[In addition, some synopses of the play state that the French scene is set at the Royal Theatre at Versailles.  (The script doesn’t actually specify this, so I assume it comes from the Pearl’s publicity department.)  Historically, there was never such a place.  Over the decades that Versailles was the royal residence, there were many theaters built and replaced in the palace, but none bore the name Théâtre Royal, or Royal Theatre.  The main theater at Versailles was called L’Opéra Royal—the Royal Opera House—and straight plays, including some of Molière’s and Beaumarchais’s, were presented there for royal audiences.]


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