In “Annapurna,” New York playwright Sharr White’s world premiere at the Magic Theatre, the ups and downs of a middle-aged couple’s interactions are condensed into the space of a single day.
Ulysses (Rod Gnapp) and Emma (Denise Cormier) haven’t communicated in 20 years, not since she left him, without explanation, in the middle of the night with their 5-year-old son in tow.
When the play begins, she has suddenly appeared in his mobile home in the Colorado mountains, wheeling in her suitcases, with bruises on her arms. Her ex-husband, in the midst of frying sausages, is wearing nothing but a tiny apron — and an oxygen pack. He wants to know what she’s doing there, and so do we.
Over the course of about an hour and a half, we find out, bit by bit, following the bumpy trajectory of their relationship, with all its manipulations, evasions and flirtations; its deep-seated rages and resentments; and its long-harbored guilt and underlying tenderness.
But the thing about an intense, realistic, two-character play like this is that if every single moment isn’t 100 percent authentic, the entire enterprise suffers.
Unfortunately, under Loretta Greco’s usually sensitive direction, such is the case here — but maybe, as the actors relax into their roles, it won’t be.
Cormier is a bright-eyed, gamine, watchful presence onstage, and Gnapp, with a crinkly-eyed grin and drawling delivery, seems ideally cast as a sarcastic cowboy poet and ex-alcoholic who has given up on life and faces imminent death. I wanted to be emotionally connected to these all-too-human characters.
But, on opening night anyway, the actors were pushing too hard. Between the two of them, there was shouting when there should have been normal tones; melodramatic sobbing instead of a struggle to repress tears. Sometimes the pair indicated emotions instead of trying to hide them, or played their character’s idiosyncrasies instead of simply being in the moment.
Similarly, Andrew Boyce’s set, while wonderfully grungy and detailed, is nevertheless more elaborate than need be for the intimate drama; with studs but no walls, we can watch the characters when they’re in the bathroom or bedroom (even Emma stripping and taking a shower), but to no dramatic purpose.
When the rapport between the two actors is simplest — when they stop straining for emotion and trust White’s words, and their own internal processes, to take over — the play is at its best.
Presented by Magic Theatre
Where: Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, San Francisco
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 4
Tickets: $45 to $65
Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org