11/25/2013 04:52 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

First Nighter: Terrence McNally's "And Away We Go" Love Letter to Actors

Theater and opera crazo Terrence McNally loves writing about his passions, especially anything to do with their off-stage aspects. Given his list-as-long-as-your-arm resumé, he's certainly a playwright who's spent enough time gathering the experience to write on what he knows well and on which he dotes.
To date there have been the thigh-slappingly funny It's Only a Play, the extremely successful Master Class with Maria Callas presiding and the opera-green-room Golden Age with its fantasy of Vincenzo Bellini's I Puritani opening night. Now as if there's no stopping him, he's come up with And Away We Go, world-premiering at the Pearl.
And as this tip of the hat and low bow to theater suggests, perhaps there should be some stopping him. Not entirely. There's much to recommend in this newest addition to his I-Love-Show-Business annals. It's a tribute to actors, who we all know deserve tributes after centuries of abuse. ("No Dogs, No Actors" signs are a strong indication of the excoriation.) But while honoring actors, McNally does go on--and on and on and yet on.
His appealing conceit is to take a look at actors from the Greeks to the present, illustrating how over time they've behaved and have been behaved towards in virtually the same manner--with the age in which they performed different only in the details.
So on Sandra Goldmark's thoroughly evocative representation of a startlingly cluttered back stage area (cleverly lighted by R. Lee Kennedy), thespians (noun derived from the actor Thespis of Icaria, whom McNally indeed mentions) gather and chat--some playwrights and directors, too. Included are a troupe appearing in The Oresteia, companies readying William Shakespeare and Moliere (born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, it's also pointed out), Moscow Arts Theater types and modern-day practitioners, in this instance, participants at the in-the-wings proceedings when Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot flopped in Florida's Coconut Grove.
McNally has long since established that he's a funny and erudite guy, and the evidence is once again in plain view throughout vignettes chockablock with straight-forward or amusing history-of-theater references.
No need to list the ample one-liners and thereby spoil them when they pop up. Let's just say the room rocks when McNally explodes an Edward Albee gag that'll have extra meaning for theater cognoscenti who know the history the two dramatists share. There's a wisecrack by a theater benefactress on the method she'll use to get a potential benefactor to open his checkbook.
The little McNally problem that's not so little is that each of the segments exceeds its staying power. The talk of masks in the Greek section is pertinent and ironic, but we get it as well as the comments about women not reciting the texts Aeschylus et al have devised. For the Elizabethan sketch, the notion that the eminent Burbage family unit wrangled among themselves is good but stretched until it's strained.
While on the one hand, it's fine for McNally to take liberties with James, Richard, Cuthbert and others of the Burbage clan, he may be overstepping the line elsewhere. For the most part, he keeps the characters fictional, but when he gets to the wildly unsuccessful Waiting for Godot intro to the states, he gives out with an unflattering account of a leading actor's very real wife. Perhaps he was present for the 1956 event or has had her behavior described for him. If not, he might have abstained.
McNally's foremost intentions are clear. He has so much he wants to say about theater then and now--here's a company head addressing subscribers, here's an artistic director explaining to her company why the next season is threatened, here's an actor dying of AIDS--that he's determined to get it all in, and that means, too, his plea on supporting the arts. He forgets that, although the less-is-more approach doesn't always apply, the belief that more is more doesn't always cut it, either.
Anyway, McNally's valentine to actors is, needless to say. played by actors. Duh! The actors here, directed with gallons of energy by Jack Cummings III, are Rachel Botchan, Donna Lynne Champlin, Dominic Cuskern, Sean McNall, Carol Schultz and Micah Stock. They're noted in alphabetical order, because noting them in order of effectiveness would be impossible.
Indeed, McNally's major achievement may be in the number of people he's dreamed up as cat's nip to players. Throughout, an actor exits--or doesn't even exit--as one person and within seconds is another. And if this kind of challenge isn't enormous fun for an actor to live up to, I'd like to know what is.
It's possible to go on as long as McNally does to itemize the ensemble members' achievements, which they only get around to after entering, kissing the floor of the stage, introducing themselves by name, citing favorite and least favorite roles and giving a fact about their past. The rite is a bit arch, but okay.
Then it's away they go. Among Botchan's finest moments is as a would-be actor frustrated that women aren't allowed to enter the profession. Champlin shines as a Russian drudge giving Stanislavski's disciples what-for. Cuskern is a hilarious Louis XIV equerry. McNall gets his laughs almost every time he aims an aside at the audience. Schultz changes the mood masterfully when talking about her company's financial difficulties. Stock wipes up as a would-be Racine or Corneille.
Maybe the way to put it is that while McNally's And Away We Go is his gift to actors, these six actors reciprocate with possibly an even greater gift. They keep the play alive even after it's overstayed its welcome.
A final word: I don't normally get to opening nights, but I did this time. Sitting among many audience members who, I think I can safely assume. are Pearl Theatre supporters, it struck me that few of them could have missed the write-us-a-check-and-now message being transmitted so cannily. Go for it, Pearl folks.