To call Terrence McNally’s delightful And Away We Go a love letter to the theater would be to do it a disservice, since that would be to offer a cliché before a work that is anything but ordinary. Granted, one could easily imagine how this play could go wrong: set backstage, it travels in time from the Theatre of Dionysus in 458 BCE to the Burbages’ plainly named Theatre in Jacobean England to Versailles in 1789 to the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1896 and finally to the humble Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1956. Each time, a set of actors, stagehands, and nervous playwrights prepare for the debut of a seminal work: The Oresteia in Greece, The Tempest in London, an unnamed revolutionary play in France, The Seagull in Russia, and finally Waiting for Godot (starring Bert Lahr) in Florida. Intersecting these momentous events is the story of a contemporary company plagued by money problems and audiences indifferent to the classics, though we see that this condition is nothing but new—working for the stage has always been a dog’s life and little but an insatiable passion for art keeps these poor players going. What could have easily been gimmicky, then, is in fact a wonderful labor of love.
Before any of this action begins, however, the Pearl’s cast introduces themselves, sharing a bit of personal information after piously kissing the stage: Sean McNall, for example, most enjoyed playing Hamlet and recently fished a coffee bean out of the nose of his nine month old, while Dominic Cuskern’s least favorite role was that of Master Enema—”Yes, you heard me right,” he says after the laughter subsides. It’s all so nice, since any avid fan of the Pearl Theatre Company has already begun to feel like these actors are family, and And Away We Go ends up a kind of adrenalin shot, a rallying cry for good theater done well. One certainly doesn’t need to know the historical figures to enjoy the play, but there are nonetheless tidbits sprinkled throughout for those in the know—“The last time the cannon went off when it shouldn’t,” remarks Richard Burbage (Mr. Cuskern) in reference to the premiere of Henry VIII, “the theatre burnt to the ground.”
Any sober look at the stage will naturally be wracked with melancholy, and the segment in Coconut Grove is particularly heartbreaking. Lahr, determined to prove himself an actor beyond the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, plays Gogo to a vicious audience and critical reactions and remains backstage while his wife (Donna Lynne Champlin) swings back a rum and coke and signs fake autographs. Still, there is a cavalier spirit that pervades the work as a whole and we leave both inspired and disheartened. The early actors and playwrights are especially zealous in their attitudes about their art, making us believe that there will always be “a safe place for some of the greatest plays ever written.”
Mr. McNall, as usual, gives a flawless performance; he is particularly affecting late in the play as Peter Duggan, Mr. Lahr’s understudy who succumbs to AIDS before getting to play Hamlet or Constantine. He also has a nice moment as an actor in pre-revolutionary France when he is asked about the homosexuality of theater folks; outraged, he cries, “Not all actors practice the British vice!” “Name one,” the king’s censor (Mr. Cuskern) challenges, and without missing a beat, he replies, “I can’t off the top of my head.” Mr. Cuskern, too, is excellent, particularly as the failed actor but successful maskmaker Hector; and Micah Stock, new to the Pearl, gives quite a range of memorable performances, from a flamboyant, dandy playwright to Peter Duggan’s lover, who must mourn the actor before he dies.
Admittedly, And Away We Go doesn’t quite find its ending; there are several moments that would prove adequate and Mr. McNally keeps going on. Still, this is a minor if frustrating flaw in an otherwise first-rate play. Of course, by the end, we are once again reminded that the Pearl is that safe place for some of the greatest plays ever written—and thus far, this season is no exception.