04/23/2014 11:11 am ET Updated Apr 23, 2014

"Annapurna": Offerman and Mullally Renew an Old Fight

The trailer the cowboy-poet Ulysses calls home in Sharr White's play Annapurna looks like it was picked up by a tornado in Nebraska, tossed around for a few hundred miles, and dropped in some crevice in the Colorado Rockies. It is not a place you would want to sit down in, let alone touch any surface.

Unfortunately, the mess of the trailer mirrors the mess of White's play. And neither the husband and wife acting team of Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally, the TV sitcom stars who originated this two-hander last year in Los Angeles and are now bringing it to an Off-Broadway run, nor the director Bart DeLorenzo do little to untangle it.

The lights come up on Ulysses standing in his trailer, bare-assed but wearing a skimpy apron, cooking some sausages long past their use-by date. Some tubes that trail out of his nose are connected to a back-pack of sorts and he has a surgical patch on his chest. A dog is barking ferociously somewhere offstage.

Suddenly the door opens and Ulysses' ex-wife Emma enters carrying enough luggage for a European tour. In a series of quick-cut scenes, they trade expletives and one-liners, most of which deal with the squalid state of Ulysses' trailer, including dog feces on the floor. The play's problems begin almost immediately.

For starters, Ulysses and Emma have not seen each other or been in touch for 20 years, but begin to bicker as though they are still married and carrying on an argument that began over breakfast last week. Then there is the question of Ulysses' health. Although he is taking oxygen and is apparently dying, he is as robust as a mountain-climber and has enough breath to bellow most of his lines.

But there are more fundamental problems with White's play, and they beg the question just what is he trying say? Is the play about alcoholism? Child abuse? Deathbed reconciliation? All of these are factors in Ulysses' and Emma's history, which is teased out over the 90 minutes. One might argue that Annapurna is about all of them, but the vagueness and lack of specificity, even at the final revelation, indicate that White himself is uncertain what happened.

There are several red herrings that trail through the play, ostensibly an effort to keep the audience interested in it. What are the bruises on Emma's arm from? Where did she get the $17,000 and change she brought with her? What happened to the letters Ulysses wrote their son Sam? Where have Emma, who has since remarried, and Sam been living for the past 20 years? Why has Sam hired a private detective to find his father?

But the central question that keeps coming up is what happened the night that Emma left with their five-year-old son two decades ago. Ulysses, who was clearly in a blackout from drinking, says he doesn't remember. But Emma somehow refuses to accept that and demands he tell her what occurred while she was out shopping that prompted her to flee their house.

It does not help Offerman's and Mullally's task that the dialogue often lapses into clichéd sophomoric writing. Lines like "the hardest part was waiting for the other shoe to drop" or "dependability is overrated" or "everybody thinks he's going to be the real thing" are not what one expects from a poet, even a cowboy-poet, and his wife-editor.

Although they originated the roles in Los Angeles, both actors still seem to be searching for their characters. Mullally frequently indicates her lines with gestures, and at times appears to be wandering around the stage anticipating her next cue. And Offerman never quite remembers he's a dying man, even in one brief scene when he is supposedly gasping for his last breath.

White had a stunning success with his play The Other Place last season. But with Annapurna - the title of an epic poem Ulysses has been working on that compares his marriage to Emma to the Himalayan peak -- the result is an improbable play about unbelievable people.