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A CurtainUp Review
Nantucket Sleigh Ride
Annother version of this play was previously staged at the McCarter Theater in 2012, under the name of Are You There, McPhee?. (Curtainup's review) Although I didn't see this earlier production, the current Lincoln Center iteration has been revised and considerably trimmed.
The title is culled from an old whaling term that describes what happens after harpooners have struck a whale. The huge creature takes off, dragging the sailors in its furious wake. A wild race through the waves ensues until the whale expires or the sailors drown.
As always, Guare displays his flair for creating lively scenes and odd-ball characters. He peppers his dialogue with one-liners that provoke, not only laughter but insights into our culture, which tends to worship "names" and personalities of every stripe.
The central figure of Nantucket Sleigh Ride is Edmund Gowery, a playwright-turned-venture capitalist who's in his 60s. Almost everybody in the play calls him by his nickname "Mundie." Strangely, no one at first seems to know much about his background or that he penned a successful play when he was 30 years old, entitled The Internal Structure of Stars. That was his one and only play. As he tels another charact, ":ightning struck me once. That's once more than it strikes most people."
The plot shuttles between reality and unreality and is impossible to summarize in a couple of sentences. But herewith is a reasonably brief outline.
In Act 1, Mundie encounters a number of friends, strangers, and ghosts. There's his lawyer Gilbert, Gilbert's wife Antonia (she's also Mundie's mistress), two displaced children from Nantucket, the children's father, an off-beat character named McPhee who arrives with a huge lobster. There are also cameo appearances by Argentina writer Jorge Luis Borges.
The event that ratchets up the action is a phone call Mundie gets from a policewoman, informing him that his Nantucket property (he bought it "sight unseen" when he was 30 years-old as an investment) has bee revealed to be ground zero for a child pornography ring. Laawyer Gilbert advises him to go to Nantucket and cooperate with the authorities in charge of the investigation. To avoid any possible subpoenas, Mundie takes his advice.
By Act 2, the plot becomes even more bizarre. It opens with Mundie's secretary wondering why her boss kept his past theater life a secret from her. She is tickled by the discovery, however, and it has her reminiscing about her high school days when she played Gowery's mother in his play. She as well as most of the Nantucket folk Mundie meets during his island visit then feel compelled to join her in spouting lines from his old play as well.
All this calls for actors who are at home with farcical comedy. John Larroquette is perfectly cast as the aging playwright who drifted into business—is perfectly cast. Jordan Gelber, as the lawyer Gilbert, inhabits his role with an earnest conviction. And Will Swenson, as McPhee, is funny without strain.
In supporting roles, Tina Benko, doing double-duty as Antonia and Alice, contrasts the two by infusing an exoticness into one and more wholesome charm into the other. German Jaramillo as Jorge Luis Borges, delivers the author's shrewd observations with the right sober tone. And Douglas Sills, in the triple roles of the shrink, the children's father, and Walt Disney, demonstrates his quicksilver versatility by insinuating himself into each persona.
But Nantucket Sleigh Ride on the whole remains a confusing, talky play that loses its dramatic momentum by trailing off in too many directions. Guare, who has written three other plays set in Nantucket (Lydie Breeze, Gardenia, and Women and Water) evidently draws inspiration from this island 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. But even so, his latest effort seems adrift in the shallows.
Indeed, one can only wish that the author of masterpieces like The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation, more favorable theatrical winds for his next venture.
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Nantucket Sleigh Ride by John Guare
Directed by Jerry Zaks
Cast: John Larroquette (Edmund Gowery), Clea Alsip (She, Elsie), Tina Benko (Antonia, Alice), Adam Chanler-Berat (Poe), Jordan Gelber (Gilbert), Grace Rex (Lilac), Stacey Sargeant (Secretary, Aubrey Coffin), Douglas Sills (Dr. Harbinger, Schuyler, Walt Disney), Will Swenson (McPhee), German Jaramillo (Jorge Luis Borges)
Sets: David Gallo
Costumes: Emily Rebholz
Lighting: Howell Binkley
Original Music and Sund: Mark Bennett
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 mnutes, including an intermission
Lincoln Center Mitzi Newhouse Theater
From 2/21/19; openinng 3/18/19;closing 5/05/19.
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours including an intermission
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan at 3/22/19 press performance
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