Sharr White’s plays have been taking New York stages by storm these days — he’s had three major star-driven productions open in the span of eighteen months (The Other Place with Laurie Metcalf and The Snow Geese with Mary-Louise Parker, both at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre, and now Annapurna with Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman at the New Group off-Broadway). So it’s puzzling that, despite the compelling characters and situations he’s set up in this latest offering, White’s dialogue is so vexingly tin-eared.
In Annapurna, Emma (Megan Mullally) turns up on the doorstep (well, trailer-step, thanks to Thomas A. Walsh’s detailed designs) of her dying ex-husband Ulysses (Nick Offerman), a poet from whom she’s long been separated after a mysterious night shook their marriage to the core. Their son Sam, who was too young when his mother divorced him to remember much about his dad, has lately been tracking down information with the help of a private investigator. With Sam having taken off during his college’s finals week to find his father’s mobile home in Colorado, Emma has left her new husband in an attempt to beat him there and tidy up the situation.
In this compelling but uneven two-hander, a sense of regret and shame is often shot through with a streak of mordant humor, particularly when Emma’s biting wit takes the forefront. But Mullally, best known for her hilariously squawky performance as Karen on TV’s Will and Grace seems unwilling here to go to the dark places her character demands. There’s something reticent in the timbre of Mullally’s voice that keeps us as audience members at arm’s length emotionally.
Offerman (who is Mullally’s real-life husband), on the other hand, gives a deeply-felt performance as Ulysses. To be fair, White has written him the meatiest of the two roles. Hooked up to a breathing tube, he prefers not to wear clothes whenever possible (Emma has to coax him). Too blackout drunk to have remembered any of the details of the night Emma left him (and it’s the details that provide the crux of the play), a swirl of denial and regret is about all he has left to cling to.
Having held onto the notion that Emma ran off on a whim, Ulysses has even composed a massive epic poem on a combination of looseleaf paper, napkins, and paper towels. He’s kept it all together in a cardboard box and brings it out to show Emma at one point (she used to edit his poems when they were married), but the pages end up falling on the floor in a symbolic jumble. He’s named the poem “Annapurna” after a nearly unclimbable mountain that “ruins” those who climb it. The poem is about Emma — at least about how Ulysses has perceived her all these years — but it’s also about himself. He concedes, poignantly: “I can’t write somethin’ about you without it also bein’ about me.”
The sense that ultimately pervades the play of its being too late for a reconciliation between these two lost souls is heartbreaking. As sensitively directed by Bart DeLorenzo, we’ve come to believe over the course of the play that Emma and Ulysses, despite their separation, might truly be “a tiny cult of just two” as White cleverly describes them. It’s unfortunately that White’s dialogue is so on-the-nose elsewhere, featuring endless prompting questions (“Like what?”) and conversations that seem constructed to hit strictly-scheduled plot moments rather than to unfold organically. As it stands, Annapurna is a compelling character study — but where White’s play truly could have soared he’s preferred instead to stick, slavishly, to the confines of his trusty plot outline.