REVIEW: John Guare’s bizarre and aptly named “Nantucket Sleigh Ride”
Lincoln Center Theater (LCT)’s Artistic Director André Bishop credits the 1986 revival of playwright John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves” with ensuring the survival of the once-fledgling though now widely-celebrated company.
That production re-opened the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, LTC’s flagship stage, after years of neglect borne of a confused mission—ushering in more than 30 years of successful programming since.
Now 81, Mr. Guare—a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Six Degrees of Separation” and “A Free Man of Color”—is back at LCT with his latest play, the evocatively titled “Nantucket Sleigh Ride”, which opened last week at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre (the Beaumont’s Off-Broadway neighbor).
A bizarre romp through the recesses of memory and the meaning of story, I suspect that “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” might not have been produced but for Mr. Guare’s well-earned esteem generally, and at LCT specifically. And it is likely to leave some audiences scratching their heads. Nevertheless, under the reliably strong direction of comedic master Jerry Zaks (“Hello, Dolly!”), “Nantucket” is, as advertised, a wholly entertaining wild ride.
The title is an 18th century term coined by whalers to describe what would happen when a whale was harpooned and dragged sailors and their boat along an uncontrollable journey until either the whale or the fishermen gave in.
Similarly, the plot kicks off when Wall Street stockbroker Edmund Gowery (a superb John Larroquette) is visited by two unexpected guests, creepy siblings Poe (Adam Chanler-Berat) and Lilac (Grace Rex), on the day he is the subject of a New York Times crossword clue referencing his 1973 turn as the hit playwright of “Internal Structure of Stars”.
Claiming lost memory, Poe and Lilac implore Gowery (a clever corruption of Guare) to recount to them the strange events of the summer of 1975, when they were still children and he was summoned by the police to Nantucket to check in on an income property purchased on the advice of his greasy lawyer (Jordan Gelber) that had become the subject of investigation into a child pornography ring.
On the island, Gowery encounters a somewhat mysterious, giant-lobster-toting man named McPhee (Will Swenson), the hungry (literally) and mischievous children, their megalomaniacal psychotherapist father (Douglas Sills), and scores of locals who starred in an amateur production of “Internal Structure of Stars” that Gowery had scorned, much to his own misfortune as he soon learns.
Along the way, Gowery is taunted by his absent mistresses (Tina Benko) in New York, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (Germán Jaramillo), and a semi-frozen Walt Disney (Mr. Sills) all while being dragged into a plot involving murder, deception, Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, Roy Scheider, and copious allegory to that summer’s blockbuster hit, “Jaws”.
The specific plot points of this memory play—drawn very loosely from Mr. Guare’s own life—are too silly, convoluted, and unnecessary to recount here, but, rest assured, constitute a Nantucket Sleigh Ride if ever there was one!
Throughout the play, Mr. Guare’s signature ability to infuse real and increasingly absurd scenarios with a dose of comedy and easy-to-swallow insight into the human condition shines. The play is meant to explain how Gowery came to abandon storytelling for a more steadily lucrative, if boring life in finance; but, of course—in what should come as no spoiler (it certainly didn’t in the theatre)—the play itself also marks the middle-aged Gowery’s triumphant return to playwriting.
The whole affair is strange, funny, and somewhat confounding—a farcical period-piece poking at questions of artistic ambition and inspiration, the process of writing, and the shaping of memory. Tautly told and energetically performed, the play remains entertaining, though incomplete—a great whale that Mr. Guare has harpooned for audiences to follow.
Bottom Line: Lincoln Center Theater presents a strange, funny, and somewhat confounding new comedy by esteemed playwright John Guare that is a bizarre romp through the recesses of memory and the meaning of story. Tautly told and energetically performed, the play remains entertaining, though incomplete—a great whale that Mr. Guare has harpooned for audiences to follow in our own “Nantucket Sleigh Ride”.
“Nantucket Sleigh Ride”
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre
Lincoln Center Theater
150 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023
Running Time: one hour, 50 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: March 18, 2019
Final Performance: May 5, 2019