The most significant box office draw for Sharr White’s play “Annapurna” is the casting of Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman. Married since 2003, Mullally and Offerman have gained notoriety for their television work — Mullally won two Emmys for her performance in “Will & Grace” and Offerman stars in NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” — but they have a long history with theater. The couple met while performing in a play in Los Angeles and have worked with theater companies in Chicago and New York.
Audiences are drawn to the theater by these fine actors, and viewers will be glad they came. The play follows Ulysses (Offerman) and Emma (Mullally), a divorced couple that has not spoken for 20 years but reunites when their son, Sam, abruptly leaves college to visit his estranged father.
Knowing that Ulysses is sick and living in seclusion, Emma journeys ahead to prepare him for Sam’s arrival. Some of her preparations are superficial — cleaning Ulysses’ disgusting trailer, stocking up his kitchen and ordering him to put some pants on — but it is clear that the two have other issues to hash out. Why does Sam suddenly want to meet his father when he ignored every letter Ulysses ever sent? And what drove Emma to leave in the first place?
The answers to these questions are fairly easy to predict, but the strong characters make up for weak points in the plot. Described as a poet-cowboy in the playbill, Ulysses is a former professor and writer who lives by himself in the mountains. Offerman brings his familiar gruffness to the role, but he carries it with an almost haunting intelligence.
Mullally’s performance is equally strong. She shows her expert comedic instinct — “Why is your inhaler in the cookie jar?” she demands in a panic when Ulysses suffers an asthma attack — as well as something deeper and more emotional. Emma explains that she gave up her editing career to care for Sam, and her maternal nature extends toward Ulysses on several occasions. She calls him out when he makes excuses for his mistakes, but also soothes him when his physical and emotional ailments flare up.
In addition to the superb performances, the lighting and set design for “Annapurna” are beautiful. Designer Thomas Walsh surrounds Ulysses’ shabby trailer with a wide mural of the Colorado mountains, creating a tightness in the house as well as an open, natural beauty that peeks in through the windows.
The story does not always hold up to the strength of the performances and design. Complications including Sam’s deafness, Emma’s abusive second husband and Ulysses’ struggles with addiction sometimes cause the plot to stumble, but Ulysses and Emma’s relationship is compelling enough to keep the play afloat. The complicated emotions these characters express feel genuine, and the seasoned cast delivers them aptly in this highly enjoyable production.
“Annapurna” is playing at the Acorn Theater, 410 W. 42nd St., through June 1.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, April 23 print edition. Suzanne Egan is a staff writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.