11/27/2013 12:30 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2014

Aisle View: Backstage Crises Through the Centuries

Even before the six actors in Terrence McNally's And Away We Go form a hand-clasping circle and murmur a silent pre-show invocation, the author has them individually come forward, kneel down to (literally) kiss the stage, introduce themselves by (actual) name, and tell us their favorite and least favorite roles. None of them place And Away We Go in the latter category, although that may well change after the final performance of this Pearl Theatre Company production on December 15.

McNally's conceit is to show us a struggling acting company at the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens (458 B.C.), another at the Globe in London (in 1610), where they are rehearsing a new play by their resident scribe called The Tempest, another with a group of 1,896 Muscovites rehearsing the new Seagull. There are three more slices of backstage drama, culminating in a financially-strapped present-day resident theatre company on the verge of insolvency, presumably like the Pearl (which last gave us a scintillating production of Shaw's You Never Can Tell). Set in a fascinatingly prop-cramped backstage area, the characters flip from era to era and back, bemoaning the never-changing realities of "the fabulous invalid."

One actor -- momentarily playing a ticket buyer -- comes in and yells: "I don't want a refund, I want the last two hours of my life back!" Another pleads: "Just get on with it and when it's over, let us go home!" It's that kind of play: 115 minutes-worth without the chance to escape to the lobby or elsewhere.

One of McNally's time machine stops is at Miami's Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1956, during the disastrous American premiere of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Bert Lahr -- who starred in both that production and the re-envisioned one that reached Broadway shortly thereafter, with a new director -- spends this section offstage in his dressing room, moaning. Instead, we have his wife Mildred walking around cracking sardonic jokes. In the final part of the evening, the whole thing briefly -- and for no discernible reason -- turns into an AIDS play.

Mr. McNally, of course, knows well how to write; many of us are looking forward to his Mothers and Sons, which is expected on Broadway this spring. He also knows how to write funny, and has provided us with much laughter over the years. But not here (the biggest laugh of the evening is a sly stab at McNally's mentor, Edward Albee). One has to imagine that McNally -- who is no fool, dramaturgically speaking -- had some great scheme in mind as he was creating this play. Whatever it was, it doesn't come through at the Pearl.

Director Jack Cummings III is unable to make much of this strange soup, although he might profitably have spent more time sorting things out with the playwright. The cast does alright under the circumstances, with one exception: Donna Lynne Champlin, who breathes life and laughter into everything she is given to do (which in this case includes droll impersonations of a Russian cleaning woman and Mildred Lahr). Also standing out is Sean McNall in several roles, including a French leading man.

At one spot, late in the long long evening, McNally shuttles Champlin on and off as five characters in lightning-quick succession. This momentarily rouses the audience, and offers a hint of what the playwright must have intended for the play. What we get, alas, is a legit counterpart to his recent opera-based backstage comedy Golden Age, which visited the Manhattan Theatre Club last December and wasn't very effective. Far more so, though, than this And Away We Go.