The first scene of Annapurna, Sharr White’s new play at New Jersey Repertory Company, is about 20 seconds long, enough time to see that Emma, with her luggage, has crashed the digs of Ulysses while he’s cooking breakfast wearing nothing but a waist-tied apron – and that Ulysses is dependent upon an oxygen tank hooked up from his back to nose buds. In the second scene, also very brief, we learn that Emma is less than welcome.
In scene three, a full two minutes long, it’s revealed that Emma and Ulysses have been divorced for 17 years and that they have a son whom Ulysses hasn’t seen or heard from in all that time. Also that Ulysses is a burned-out writer and, responding to Emma’s discomfort over his barely loin-covering apron, that she’s lucky she caught him frying sausages. No comment there.
Scene four, supposedly ten minutes after Emma’s arrival, opens with her taking a shower, discreetly blurred through an opaque shower curtain. Then the story begins to unfold: Emma (Gina Bonati) had left Ulysses (Peter Galman) in the middle of the night, taking five-year old Sammy (now Sam) with her. Hints are dropped about what prompted her abrupt departure, and we do learn the cause at the end of the 90-minute play. I’ll not disclose it here, except to note that, without minimizing its seriousness, the revelation is anti-climactic.
Glossing over these and other elements of Annapurna – her bruised arms, his shortened life expectancy after lung-reduction surgery – should not be construed as being overly critical. It’s just that the work is less a play than an extended anecdote about the ravages of alcoholism and the redemptive nature of forgiveness. Anyone who cannot foresee early on where the Emma-Ulysses relationship will end up has never seen a Hallmark TV movie.
The piece is well enough acted, although Emma’s “Why are you shouting?” to Ulysses came way too late in the play. SuzAnne Barabas’s direction minimizes the potential for boredom that threatens many two-handers. She keeps the characters in motion and…well, loud. The set is another of Jessica Parks’s finely wrought creations, although it seems more like a tidy bungalow than a shanty trailer, despite the live-in ant colony.
Annapurna is NJ Rep’s 88th production and not the first one punctuated by frequent f-words, a writing technique that smacks of indolence. I’m far from a prude, but it does get wearisome.
Through November 18 at NJ Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch NJ. Performances Thurs & Fri at 8pm; Sat at 3 and 8pm; Sun at 2pm. For information and tickets ($40; seniors $36; students $25): 732-229-3166 and at www.njrep.org
[Congratulations to NJ Rep on being one of ten recipients of the 2012 National Theatre Company Award. The honor, which carries with it a $10,000 grant, is bestowed by the American Theatre Wing, originator of the Tony Award.]