There’s no more intimate theater experience than watching a two-person play. Whereas a one-man show is so explicitly performative and an expansive cast makes it impossible to forget the more, well, theatrical elements of theater, two people alone on a stage afford the audience a potentially unparalleled glimpse into the dynamics of human relationships. Two-person plays tend to revolve around love or hate or (most likely) love and hate. In other words, they’re the perfect vehicle to explore the intricacies of a marriage.
Set entirely in a filthy, insect-infested trailer perched in the “butt crack of the Rockies,” Sharr White’s Annapurna (at the Acorn through June 1) is an intense look at the death of a marriage and the ways in which every decision (or mistake) we make—no matter how small—will ultimately have life-defining ramifications. Real life husband-and-wife Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) and Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) are Emma and Ulysses, a once passionately in-love couple whose marriage abruptly ended when Emma left with their 5-year-old son in the middle of the night. It’s now 20 years later, and Emma has—without warning—come to visit Ulysses, whose decaying trailer mirrors his deteriorating health. He’s dying, and Emma’s arrival, like some Formula 409-wielding angel, is clearly his chance to escape his purgatory-like exile, seemingly self-imposed following the alcoholism-related loss of his job (English professor), creative career (poet), and family.
While it’s not the lightest of theatrical fare, White’s script is often darkly humorous, and is in fact at its best when funny and not making such an uncomfortably apparent effort to land a dramatic punch. (Notably, the play opens on a nude-but-for-a-tiny-apron Offerman, and gets some of its biggest laughs when Ulysses refers to his trailer park as being “the ugliest and saddest accidental nudist colony you ever saw.”) But while it might not come as much of a surprise that Mullally and Offerman are adept at handling comedy, what the pair do with the more serious elements of Annapurna is all the more impressive considering that the “dramatic” end-of-play reveal was easy to predict and thus disappointing.
No matter, though, because the flaws in White’s script (which is not bad exactly, just not great) are overcome by Mullally’s excellent embodiment of a very specific type of woman—one whose long ago, dearly held belief in the power of love was broken, and so who now clings to rituals like cleaning and cooking to prove that she’s surviving—and by Offerman’s pathos-filled portrayal of an embittered man who must pretend to others (and to himself) that he’s doing the best he can, that the problems in his life are due more to the exigencies of fate than to his own misdeeds.
The title of the play comes not only from the towering mountain Annapurna, a peak whose ascent has claimed men’s lives and limbs, but also from the epic poem that Ulysses has been busy composing during his 20-year exile. The poem (obviously, but forgivably) is about his marriage to Emma, and about the fading of the “optimism of the morning.” But rather than end on a hopeless note, the poem (and the play) allow us a glimpse of “the brightening blackness, and at last, at last, oh God, the sun.” The sentiment might be a bit trite, but Offerman and Mullally make you believe that they will walk out of that squalid trailer and into the surrounding mountainous glory—if only for a little while.