“Annapurna” Presented by the New Group at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row (Closed Sunday June 1, 2014)

April 21, 2014 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Written by Sharr White
Directed by Bart DeLorenzo
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“Annapurna” is a high-wire act with no safety net.

Homer recounts the epic ten-year journey of Ulysses after the fall of Troy and chronicles his adventures and misadventures as he attempts to reunite with his faithful wife Penelope and their son Telemachus. James Joyce recounts the epic day-long journey of Leopold Bloom and unfolds his adventures and misadventure in Dublin with corollary characters Molly Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. And Sharr White recounts the epic day-long journey of his equally modernist Ulysses (Nick Offerman) and rehearses his adventures and (mostly) misadventures as he receives a visit from his ex-wife Emma (Megan Mullally) and the impending visit from their son Sam.

The epic journey of Sharr White’s character Ulysses is less of a sea event and more of a land excursion, specifically a dangerous dance with Emma as she leads him down the demon-laden memory ride to the night she left him – taking Sammy with her – never to return. Mr. White’s epic is entitled “Annapurna” and it is the final offering of the New Group in its home at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row. ‘Annapurna’ is also the title of Ulysses’ own epic poem written about Emma (and about him) in Emma’s absence on paper towels, tissues and other detritus extant in his Paonia, Colorado trailer home.

As Emma clears away that detritus, she clears a path through Ulysses’ layers of denial and addiction to a truth of epic proportion. Battling her own co-dependence and pain, she appears to return to Ulysses to care for him in his dying days: decades of alcohol and nicotine and sorrow have taken their toll on Ulysses and an oxygen backpack and a stash of emergency inhalers are not as effective as they used to be at prolonging his existence. In Mr. White’s retelling of “The Odyssey” Emma is the one who leaves home with her son; however, “Annapurna” is Ulysses’ journey. Emma and Sam have dodged co-dependence and pain for twenty years: mother and son have not cared for themselves by attending Al-Anon/Alateen Family Meetings. But Emma does not return to Ulysses to rescue him. She returns to exact revenge and redeem Sam’s pain.

“EMMA: Just because you leave someone doesn’t mean you’re not…in…relationship. With them.
Somehow. For the rest of your life.” It is that ‘somehow’ that is at the heart of the well-written “Annapurna.” Emma and Ulysses are both captives to the past: Emma has decided to disengage from the suffering and massive binge of denial:

“ULYSSES: Almost; cowboy boots. (Small beat.)But I see ‘em up there sometimes, the unprepared ones; stuck. Scared. Little sick to think this way but it…makes me feel better.
EMMA: What, to know other people are stuck and scared? (Beat. Re: more ants.)—OK, where are they coming from, I just cleaned this.”

It would be remiss of this critic to disclose the truth Emma extracts from Ulysses. Her rescue mission is nothing like Marty McNeely’s rescue from Ulysses’ climb but the resentment resounds with familiarity:

“EMMA: (Rising to clean again.) He did, didn’t he. [Marty] rescued you and you’ve been pissed off about it ever since. Admit it.
ULYSSES: He…encouraged me. That’s all. To climb back down. With a rope around my waist.”

Emma’s “rope” tightens its grip on Ulysses’s anatomy in places other than his waist. And it is that ‘tightening’ that provides the gripping conflict in “Annapurna” and that is at the heart of the play’s excruciating but necessary catharsis.

It is a testament to these two skilled actors that they not only successfully navigate the treacherous terrain between their battered and bruised psyches and souls; they also successfully give breath and life to Sam the never-seen son of Ulysses and Emma. This is a remarkable feat borne of their formidable craft and commitment to excellence. Under Bart DeLorenzo’s meticulous direction, Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman perform a well choreographed dance – often a waltz, sometimes a jazz routine, more than once a throbbing tango – whose final sumptuous steps trail off to a terrifying truth and a path to redemption and release.

Thomas A. Walsh’s claustrophobic trailer set and Michael Gend’s eerie lighting collude with Mr. DeLorenzo’s direction and the cast to make “Annapurna” a high-wire act with no safety net.

See “Annapurna” as soon as you can so you have the opportunity to see it a second time before it closes on Sunday June 1, 2014. You will not regret it.