Nantucket Sleigh Ride is an old whaling term, as one of the characters explains in John Guare’s crafty new play. “Sailors would harpoon a whale. The whale would drag the sailors on a frantic race across the ocean – for hours – for days – until the whale died or the whale drowned the sailors.”
That’s more or less the ride that poor Edmund Gowery winds up taking in “Nantucket Sleigh Ride.”
It begins when a child-like duo from his past show up at his office with a bizarre request. Gowery (John Larroquette) is now a rich New York businessman, but he’s already had a jolt from the past this morning when he discovers that his name was the answer to a clue in the New York Times Sunday cross word puzzle – “’70’s playwright.” Yes, Gowery had written a successful play, just one, decades ago. “Lightning struck me once,” he explains to all who ask. “That’s once more than it strikes most people.”
His visitors are brother and sister, Poe and Lilac (Adam Chanler-Berat and Grace Rex), and they want him to go back to that period of his life, the summer of 1975 on Nantucket Island, to fill the hole in their own memories. “The doctor said we can’t go on with our lives until we fill in the blank.”
So Gowery, with the help of the rest of a game 10-member cast, brings us back to that summer and a series of often surreal events that can be described as labyrinthine. Indeed, Gowery carries his favorite book, Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, in his back pocket – and Borges (Germán Jaramillo) makes frequent appearances, delivering his words of wisdom.
It’s a mostly comic tale of ambition, neglect, corruption and deception that has far too many twists and teases and tumult to hazard even a brief outline. (Even the marketing material is content just to list some elements — “a giant lobster, Roman Polanski, a pornography ring, Walt Disney, stranded children, a murder”) Let me offer just a sample instead: Shortly after Gowery has strangled a frozen Walt Disney (“This is for what you did to Snow White. This is for what you did to Sleeping Beauty….Dumbo….Mary Poppins”), Elsie (Clea Alsip), the woman from whom he has bought a house on Nantucket, is so grateful that she offers to grant him any wish he desires. Gowery wishes to write a second play. Thunder. Borges appears. Borges sits Gowery at the desk where Samuel Beckett wrote “Waiting for Godot” and Chekhov wrote “The Cherry Orchard,” hands Gowery a strange writing device called a laptop (remember, it’s 1975), and Gowery writes…”Nantucket Sleigh Ride.”
Some theatergoers might such flights into Gowery’s dreams and nightmares (and Guare’s inside jokes) too confusing or twee, but the absurdity is paired with a carefully crafted plot that is like a mystery or a thriller, even as it pokes fun at mysteries and thrillers (and the people who write them.) Guare leads us step by step, offering enough of a concrete story to keep (most of) us in our seats. Plot threads and motifs spring up throughout the play, sometimes like bon-bons, sometimes like little smoke-bombs, occasionally as clues. Again, an example: Just months earlier, The Nantucket Stage Company had put on his play, “Internal Structure of Stars,” and had invited him from New York to see it. He declined. Now every single person he meets on the island brings up the production one way or another, sometimes to complain about his absence, sometimes to boast about their performance, sometimes in odder ways: He calls the local grocery store for a delivery and we hear: “I’m sorry you didn’t get cast, but don’t hang up.”
That production of Gowery’s play figures prominently in the big reveal that resolves the mysteries, tying up most of the threads, maybe a tad too tidily — though to the less patient theatergoer the resolution might at least partially make up for the anarchic bombardment that precedes it.
As he does in his best known plays — “The House of Blue Leaves” and “Six Degrees of Separation” — Guare tempers the slickly urbane tone, devilish wit and surreal imagination of “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” with an undercurrent of melancholy. The weight of the world is pressing down on Gowery. There are serious issues woven into “Nantucket Sleigh Ride,” such as how people deal with abandonment, the vagaries of memory, the loss of youthful conviction.
Jerry Zaks directs “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” with the same comic verve and efficiency as he did Guare’s previous plays. The set by David Gallo at first just seems to comprise a backdrop of rows of doors, one atop another. But then the doors open up to reveal the characters from Gowery’s past, as if abruptly appearing in his memory (and just as quickly disappearing.)
Larroquette does a fine, droll job as Gowery, who is an obvious stand-in for Guare. Guare’s name was once a clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle. Guare also spent time as a young man on Nantucket, and it changed his life. He is the one who started The Nantucket Stage Company, though it only lasted a season. He also met his wife there; their marriage has lasted 45 years. Unlike the character he has created, though, Guare, at age 81, has had way more than one play to look back upon. Lightning keeps on striking.
Nantucket Sleight Ride
Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse
Written by John Guare, directed by Jerry Zaks.
sets by David Gallo, costumes by Emily Rebholz, lighting by Howell Binkley, and original music and sound by Mark Bennett.
Cast: Clea Alsip, Tina Benko, Adam Chanler-Berat, Jordan Gelber, Germán Jaramillo, John Larroquette, Grace Rex, Stacey Sargeant, Douglas Sills, and Will Swenson.
Running time: One hour and 50 minutes with one intermission
Nantucket Sleigh Ride is on stage through May 5, 2019