Terrence McNally’s And Away We Go, is his love letter to the theater that’s shaped him. Like a lover of long standing, he warms to her foibles and rants, lays bare her intimate secrets, celebrates her exuberant lust to be seen.
I found it hard to leave the theater. First, I had a great time and have always tended to stay way too late at really good parties. Second, although I had just had a robust, laugh-out-loud experience and a powerful lesson in how theater ought to be done, I felt that I had not been quite up to all that was offered. I want to go again and try to catch up.
Fifty years on the job, four Tony awards on his mantel, and all the critical and popular acclaim any man could stand – McNally’s taken his life in the theater and packaged it for us as a theater-arts master class. He starts with the Greeks and quick steps us through Moliere, Chekov and Shakespeare on to Beckett and Albee. Just six actors perform the whole timeline of Western theater’s development.
McNally has a lot of fun on the backs of subscribers and theater board members – the folks just outside the theatrical experience who will pay for proximity to the art. But McNally saves his richest barbs for his characters cast as playwrights – not so much wounding as hoisting them.
The magic in And Away We Go is that McNally can send them all up, make them look foolish and extravagant — and then make the whole thing come right. There’s magic here. He’s willing to say theater people are venal and arrogant, driven and pretentious. But taken together, they are magic.
In Tom Stoppard’s and Marc Norman’s Shakespeare In Love they describe “…the theater business as a condition of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster…”So, what to do? “Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well. It’s a mystery.”
The And Away We Go script is rich with layers of inside jokes. When McNally was starting out in New York theater in the early 1960’s he was a protege, and more, to the already accomplished Edward Albee. McNally tugs on Albee’s coat a bit as he cites a struggling repertory theatre forced to bear the cost of reprinting programs because Albee’s people insist the title is: Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf not just Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Later, when it looks like there won’t be money for the next season the hot ingenue of the company says her next gig is playing a lizard, presumably in Albee’s Seascapes. (I got these two but had the constant sense there was so much more to get.)
The stage at the Pearl Theater alone is worth the trip. And trippy it is. You walk into Sandra Goldmark’s really busy set – the Smithsonian of props and drapes. There is somethingon that stage or hanging over it or about to tumble from the wings, that has been a piece of every play produced since the mists of time.
It turns out, that is only a modest exaggeration. A lovely man, (yes, a Pearl subscriber), told us after the show that he recognized the Indonesian lamps “…from Signature’s staging of something before they moved up the street.” The red screen, stage left, has served many masters and I’d guess the classic Greek masks at the back of the set must be nasty inside, given the many actors who’ve breathed life through them.
The action begins as, one at a time, the six actors step up, kiss the stage, and tell the audience their names, how long they have been acting, their favorite and least favorite roles, and “one thing you should know about me before we begin the performance.” And Away We Go. I lost count of how many people they conjured but the script says eighteen. This is a tricky business as you do recognize types – the fading leading man, the noisy character actress, the petulant playwright – still, each of the eighteen has a distinct, memorable personality. Actors!
Director Jack Cummings III keeps the scores of transitions tight and true. With virtually no set changes, he leaps centuries and continents. Lighting designer R.Lee Kennedy keeps the eye diverted, subtly showcasing specifics in the overall clutter – a series of moments in the messy business of theater.
This is a long-winded way of saying GO. It’s wonderful, challenging, and exhausting.
And Away We Go – By Terrence McNally, Directed by Jack Cummings III
WITH: Rachel Botchan, Donna Lynne Champlin, Dominic Cuskern, Sean McNall, Carol Schultz and Micah Stock. Designed by Sandra Goldmark; costumes by Kathryn Rohe; lighting designed by R.Lee Kennedy; sound by Michael Rasbury; dramaturg Kate Farrington; casting by Nora Brennan; stage manager Lloyd Davis, Jr.; production manager and technical director Gary Levinson.
At the Pearl Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street, Manhattan; opening November 24 and running through December 15. pearltheatre.org; 212.563.9261. Running time is 100 minutes, no intermission.