Saturday, March 23, 2019

191 (2018-2019): Review: NANTUCKET SLEIGH RIDE (seen March 22, 2019)

“The One that Got Away”

 Edmund Gowery, the playwright character at the heart of Nantucket Sleigh Ride, John Guare’s energetically performed but comically jumbled, thinly entertaining new memory play at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, has only one play to his credit, The Internal Structure of Stars, now forgotten. 
Stacy Sargent, John Larroquette. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
Thus, as the play starts, he’s surprised to learn he’s earned the 57 across spot in the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, decades after the once widely performed play was first produced. Unlike Gowery (nicknamed Mundie), Guare himself—Mundie’s apparent inspiration—has established a place as one of our most respected dramatists with his multiple contributions, including such standards as The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation.

In Nantucket Sleigh Ride, set in 2010, Mundie (John Larroquette), following fateful events on the eponymous New England island in the summer of ‘75, was never struck again by creative lightning; he’s given up playwriting and become a successful Wall Streeter. He was only 30 at the time but he’s expunged what happened from his memory.

However, the arrival in his office, one hot summer day, of a zombie-like brother and sister named Poe (Adam Chanler-Beret) and Lilac (Grace Rex), demonstrates that you can’t forget your past. Poe and Lilac, preadolescents in 1975 who’ve gone completely blank on what happened that summer, have searched Mundie out to help restore their memories. Bewildered and disturbed, he locks himself in the toilet as thoughts of 35 years earlier come flooding back.
John Larroquette. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
Thus are we thrust back to that fateful August within the framework of a tale narrated by Mundie, who also plays himself as a young man, although, to our eyes, he remains the tall, pudgy, white-haired fellow we first met. What we see is an absurdist farce in which, it being the summer of ’75, not only is everybody reading Jaws and seeing the movie but Roy Scheider (Will Swenson) himself gets some stage time.

Guare also provides so many references to The Internal Structure of Stars, including quotes, that—given its autobiographical nature as a memory play about an 11-year-old boy named Edmund—it practically becomes a play within the play. Moreover, all the Nantucket folks we meet have some connection to a recent amateur production, the real motivating factor in the action.

This extends to the African-American policewoman, Aubrey Coffin (Stacy Sargent), who played Edmund’s fatally ill mother in the local staging. It’s she who Mundie recalls having summoned him to Nantucket to answer questions about a child porn scheme allegedly being run by the tenants of the house he bought as an investment but never visited.

The porn thread fades as various nutty characters appear in a string-of-pearls plot circling around Mundie’s having angered the star of the town's production, Elsie Spooner (Clea Alsip), and everyone else, by rudely refusing her invitation to attend. 
John Larroquette, Will Swenson. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
Elsie, who grew up in the house Mundie owns, is not only the mother of Poe and Lilac, but is also the daughter of a famous children’s author, which thus connects to our seeing the deceased Walt Disney (Will Swenson) in the guise of a cryonically frozen, icicle-covered golem. In one of the play’s satirical deflections, it allows Mundie to rail against how reprehensibly Disney films adapt the stories on which they’re based.

And so on, with curious situations including rivalries between Elsie’s child psychoanalyst husband, Schuyler (Douglas Sills), and her lobster-bearing lover, MacPhee (Will Swenson); the lobster’s death by electrocution; Mundie’s affair with Antonia (Tina Benko), the gorgeous, flamenco-dancing, multilingual wife of his lawyer, Gilbert (Jordan Gelber); a chance to write a screenplay for a remake by Roman Polanski of Hitchcock’s Suspicion, with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, and similar screwy infusions.

Oh yes, we mustn’t forget Argentinean writer, Jorge Luis Borges (Germán Jaramillo), blind and elderly, who taps his walking stick while wandering through the action, with frequent references to his book, Labyrinths, and a string of elusive aphorisms.
Clea Alsip, Will Swenson, Germán Jaramillo, John Larroquette, Tina Benko. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
Perhaps we’re meant to see Nantucket Sleigh Ride—a title inspired by what happens to whalers after they’ve harpooned their prey and get taken for a possibly fatal ride—as a near-surrealistic labyrinth through which we’re taken for a theatrical jaunt. (In 2012, Princeton’s McCarter Theatre presented an earlier version under the title Are You There, McPhee.)

Wild as the trip sounds, the whale it’s chasing is laughter, and, despite a highly qualified cast, the response is rarely more than mild amusement, not hilarity. Even under the direction of Guare-master Jerry Zaks, who helped make several earlier Guare works click, his knack for fast-paced staging fails to ignite the kind of comic reaction needed. Too often, the actors are forced to go overboard for laughs, and there's an insufficient supply of real wit on board. A significant problem is that having the affable, generally impressive, 71-year-old Larroquette play his much younger self, while shifting back and forth from his senior persona, is an obstacle to buying Mundie’s shtick. There's simply too wide a disconnect between the dude in his time that the characters see and the old guy past his prime we're looking at.
Adam Chanler-Beret, Grace Rex. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
I enjoyed the work of Sills and Benko, in particular, but the takeaway kudos go to Sargent, playing not only the cop but Mundie’s New York temporary secretary. Sargent, a black actress, uses sharply different but always authentic accents for both, and then adds a third, Nu Yawky one, for Edmund’s mother in a scene she recites from Mundie’s play, which she did in high school. Her scene is the show’s unsung highlight. 
Above: Germán Jaramillo, Clea Alsip, Douglas Sill, Will Swenson, Tina Benko. Below: Adam Chanler-Beret, John Larroqquete, Grace Rex. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
This idea of using different accents—not mentioned in the script—would seem the brainstorm of  Zaks, who exercises his craft on David Gallo's interesting set of a shiny marble floor fronting a wall consisting of 30 dark-wood doors, each with a brass handle, lined up across the background in three tiered rows of ten each. 

Instead of opening like doors, though, they slide like panels in multiple units to either side. This provides a high space for partial exteriors, like a house’s gable; a central space, midway up, on which characters appear in rapid succession to talk with Mundie, who faces us and away from them; and a floor-level part, through which a Magritte-inspired living room rolls on and off. The show’s physical attractiveness is further heightened by the vivid lighting of Howell Binkley and the charming costumes of Emily Rebholz.

Nantucket Sleigh Ride gets a polished production but it carries too much absurdist blubber to make its pursuit more than momentarily worthwhile. This is a big one that got away.

Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre/Lincoln Center
10 Lincoln Center Plaza, NYC
Through May 5