Is climbing a mountain, even one as daunting as the one mentioned in the title of this show, a good metaphor for a relationship between a man and a woman? Well, it's difficult to make such an ascent, so you need commitment, trust and passion for the towering task at hand.
That is the image playwright Sharr White is working on in his two-person one-act, Annapurna, now at None Too Fragile Theater. And while the metaphor creaks pretty badly over the 100 minutes of this play, the actors do everything in their power to keep the script from tumbling down the craggy face of its own conceit.
Speaking of craggy, Ulysses is a middle-aged guy living in a squalid trailer somewhere in Colorado, waiting to die. We learn he was a former professor of poetry, known for his own books of verse, but his life went down the tubes when his wife, Emma, walked out on him with their young son. And now, Emma has shown up on his doorstep, 20 years later with suitcase in hand, looking for some sort of reconciliation.
It all begins with some bracing absurdity, as Ulysses stands there, literally butt-naked with an apron covering his tender bits as he cooks up some sausage (oddly not accompanied by sound effects of sizzling meat, which would make the scene more deliciously uncomfortable). Utilizing quick blackouts to indicate the passage of a few seconds or minutes, this first section of the play augurs well for what's to come.
Unfortunately, White falls into the old playwriting trap of having characters talk about the past instead of fully occupying the present. So the remainder of the play involves Emma trying to bring some organization to Uly's trailer while they rehash what happened way back then. Sure, White populates that past with plenty of details. About Emma's abusive second husband Peter's inability to get tenure as an English professor at a community college. About the string of Kleen King dry cleaning stores she and Peter ran as an on-the-side enterprise. About the friend from college who's now writing (under a pseudonym) romance novels "with shirtless Indians on the cover." But these anecdotes, full of scholarly pretension and some snobbery, feel like beads being threaded on a string that has no meaningful connection to what's happening now.
Occasionally the play dips into some meaningful stuff, as when Emma admits that Ulysses was always the "real thing," and that he made it possible for her to forget about herself. "It was like we were in a cult of two," she reminisces. Are we supposed to assume that's a good thing? Or is she just the kind of woman who transitions from one abusive relationship to another, trying to work out some inner demons? The playwright doesn't give us enough information to make that judgment, and then Emma reveals that their now grown son is on his way to visit his estranged dad. But since this is a two-person play, the audience can easily cop to the conclusion that he'll never show up.
The dialogue is all well written but still a bit of a hard slog, made deceivingly palatable by two fine actors. As Ulysses, the usually elegant Jeffery Grover looks like five miles of bad road, playing this booze-addled guy who has multiple medical challenges and wears an oxygen tube attached to his nostrils. Grover effectively portrays a college prof gone to seed, and he deftly lands most of the funny lines in the play.
He is paired with the talented Derdriu Ring as Emma, and Ring does what she can with a part that feels like it's been written off-center from the start. We are never given a credible idea about what has drawn her to this isolated trailer and this, um, rather offensive man. To stop the son? To settle accounts with her ex-husband? To do some housekeeping?
The challenge for both actors is that, apart from talking endlessly about the past, there is nothing clearly at stake for the two. The play's structure — an arguing couple (one of whom is a professor) and an unseen child — creates an echo of a vastly better play: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But while Edward Albee found a way to have his contestants fight volubly and compellingly in the moment, while referencing the past, White resigns his characters to mostly blabbing about the past. And when the present does intrude, it's not in a particularly interesting way. (Uly has rotten meat in his mini-fridge, it smells bad, ecch.)
If the message is that love is a messy affair, and a big challenge, consider it received. But despite two fine performances and apart from the promising opening, this production as directed by Sean Derry lacks the necessary sizzle, sausage-wise and otherwise.