The Pearl Theatre
555 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Extended through December 21, $35-$65
Last year, four-time Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally (Master Class, Love! Valour! Compassion!) took audiences behind the scenes of the 1835 world premiere of Vincenzo Bellini’s I puritani in Golden Age. Now he’s backstage again, time traveling through six productions in six different time periods in the utterly delightful And Away We Go. Written specifically for the Pearl Theatre Company for its fortieth anniversary season, the one-hundred-minute intermissionless play begins as each of the six actors, four of whom are part of the regular Pearl ensemble, kiss the stage and introduce themselves on Sandra Goldmark’s set, which is littered with theatrical paraphernalia, from multiple chairs and lamps hanging from the ceiling to clothing and posters to a phrenology head and a skeleton in a bathtub. The play then moves to 458 BCE Athens, where a troupe is backstage, putting on Aeschylus’s The Oresteia as part of a theater-festival contest. “One day, Hector, an actor is going to tear his mask off and say to the audience, ‘This is what human suffering looks like,’” Pallas (Micah Stock) says to Hector (Dominic Cuskern) while Dimitris (Sean McNall) desperately awaits his handcrafted mask since it’s nearly time for him to make his entrance as Agamemnon. As in Golden Age, the action remains backstage as the six actors, staying in contemporary costume, shift to the Globe in 1610 London for The Tempest, the Royal Theatre in Versailles in 1789 for a new play by Christophe Durant (Stock), the Moscow Art Theatre in 1896 for the first reading of The Seagull, and finally the Coconut Grove Playhouse in South Florida in 1956 for closing night of the U.S. premiere of Waiting for Godot.
Along the way, McNally and the thirty-six characters skewer theatrical conventions, give away acting tricks and secrets, make inside jokes about donors, subscribers, critics, and open rehearsals, and take plenty of self-referential stabs at themselves as well, having a ball tearing the mask away from Theater with a capital T. “We need new plays. Classics aren’t the answer,” Kenny Tobias (Stock) says in Coconut Grove in an obvious reference to the Pearl itself, which specializes in the classics. “I love the theater,” Gretna (Donna Lynne Champlin) tells Lydia (Carol Schultz) in London, to which Lydia responds, “You attend the theater, which is something altogether different. Everyone loves the theater, very few are of the theater.” Meanwhile, Bert Lahr’s wife, Mildred (Champlin), calls playwriting “a dying profession” and playwrights “miserable sons of bitches.” And back in Moscow, actress Maya Nabokov (Rachel Botchan) tells her lover, set designer Yuri Goldovsky (McNall), “Scenery that frees the actor and doesn’t confine him. I can soar in such a space.” And indeed, the six performers soar in their multiple roles, effortlessly shifting characters under the smooth, fluid direction of the Transport Group’s Jack Cummings III (Queen of the Mist), although there are occasional loud explosions that shake things up a bit and keep the audience on its toes. Another small gem from McNally, And Away We Go, which continues at the Pearl through December 21, is a wonderful treat for people who love the theater, whether they are of the theater or not.