Terrence McNally is one fortunate fellow. He was quoted in an interview on Playbill.com as having said that he’s been blessed with a happy home life, and the privilege of working at a job he loves for over 50 years. That job is playwright, and to mix a metaphor, he is one shoe maker who has stuck to his last. A theatre lover since boyhood, he was not discouraged by the failure of his first production on Broadway in 1965. It was called And Things That Go Bump In the Night, and it only managed 16 performances. In the spring of 2014 Tyne Daly will star in his 35th play (I may be off by one or two), Mothers and Sons at the Golden Theatre on Broadway. Many of his plays have had limited runs, though several have run long enough to comfortably protect his old age. Now 75, he is robust and eager to go on writing for the theatre until his memory or facility with words are no longer available to him (both mentioned in the Playbill interview.) He has always dealt with issues that have concerned him as he lived through the second half of the 20th century and the now 13 years of this one. Sometimes just the fun side (The Ritz, It’s Only a Play), often the AIDS crisis, (Lips Together Teeth Apart, André’s Mother,), the road to gay liberation (Some Men, Mothers and Sons).
He’s written the book to half a dozen musicals, most of them great successes (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime, The Full Monty), an opera or two, an occasional TV script, 3 screenplays (adaptations of his own plays). Clearly he has had a rich and rewarding life and career, which leads me at last to his new work, commissioned by the Pearl Theatre.
That is And Away We Go which is a free wheeling, very sloppy, slightly slap happy love letter to the theatre that has sustained him through a lifetime. He’s thrown it out there and it covers the whole spectrum from the ancient Greeks where it all began through Jacobean England, over the channel to France on the eve of its revolution, on to the Russians in Chekov’s time and then across the ocean to the American premiere of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in most unlikely Miami in 1956.
As all this occurs in 95 minutes of just one act, it’s confusing to say the least and as there are no assists from scenery, makeup or costumes (an occasional sword or helmet or cape is not a costume) the only hint we have as to where and when we are comes from the so-called accents the actors paste on, with varying success.The Pearl is a firmly established theatre company, with a large stable of loyal and talented actors who generally infuse revivals of long forgotten or treasured old plays, but who this time are tackling a new one, written just for them.)
The young veteran Sean McNall is central in this irreverent romp, and he leads us through the backstage shenanigans that attached themselves to everything from Athens in 458 BC just before a matinee of the Orestia, to London’s Globe in 1610 to Versailles’ Royal Theatre in 1789, to the Moscow Art Theatre in 1896 at the first reading of The Seagull, to the final night of Waiting for Godot in 1956 in Coral Gables, Florida. We never see an actual scene from any of the ancient plays, but we do meet all sorts of people connected to their productions — prop makers, dowager patrons, understudies, families of actors waiting in the wings, and the actors themselves. McNally’s dialogue is insider stuff and it helps to bring with you a familiarity with the plots, themes and first night reactions to the plays he mentions.
The stage is fully lit when we enter. There is no scenery, but clearly we are backstage at a theatre, one that is filled with stored costumes, props, lights, posters, playbills, equipment of all sorts. These items are everywhere — on ladders, hanging from the flies, hooked on to staircases, attached to electronic devices. There is a large table center stage, and several chairs scattered about. There are six or seven escape routes from the jungle on stage and all of them are used at one point or another.
In this production, the assembled company is a mixed bag. Sean McNall is in control of his many characterizations — his flair for accents is tops and he uses his agile body to adapt to literally centuries of behavioral movement. One or two of the others manage well enough; Dominic Cuskern, a Pearl vet, does a nice job throughout the evening, but on the whole the others don’t seem to realize that louder is not funnier, and the two young members of the cast, both making their debuts with the Pearl, though attractive and resourceful, tend to find loud people funny, and all I noticed when they approached the sound barrier was that they became unintelligible, and when that occurred, all humor followed them out the door. All of them seemed to be having a fine time, but it’s not a good thing when the cast is enjoying the play more than the audience. In all truth there was a rousing response to these actors at the curtain call, but the response during the actual performance had been tepid, and I could not bring myself to join the crowd in cheering.
I think Terrence McNally wanted to say thank you to the theatre in which he has happily spent all his working life, but there’s something unfinished about this work. I wanted so to catch the spirit implicit in its title, but it sounded like a very early work by an undisciplined and unripe beginner. We know that’s not true of this accomplished and prolific artist.
And Things That Go Bump in the Night, his first play; And Away We Go, his most recent.
I would suggest he drop “And” in future titles.
And Away We Go has extended its run thru December 21, 2013 at The Pearl, 555 West 42nd Street, NYC. Details and Tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.
Richard Seff is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.