By Brian Scott Lipton
Will you feel taken for a ride if you head to Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater to take in John Guare’s “Nantucket Sleigh Ride”? Without question, this shaggy dog tale is a far cry from Guare’s best works, such as the socially incisive “Six Degrees of Separation” or his tragicomic “The House of Blue Leaves.” On the other hand, if you’re willing to go along for this sometimes hilarious, sometimes incomprehensible ride, you’ll probably be just fine.
Moreover, the play (a severely reworked version of 2012’s “Are You There, McPhee?”) has been given a first-class production by director Jerry Zaks, including an ultra-inventive set from designer David Gallo and uniformly fine performances by a truly expert cast led by Tony and Emmy winner John Larroquette (in his trademark grumpy-yet-loveable mode).
The author of one seemingly beloved play in the 1970s, Edmund Gowery (Larroquette) has put aside his one-time dream of continued artistic success to become a very successful CEO. But his brief brush with fame suddenly reappears twice in the same day; first, when he becomes a clue in the “New York Times” crossword (57 across), and, secondly, when the now-grown Poe (Adam Chanler-Berat) and Lilac (Grace Rex) barge into his office, begging to know what happened during the summer of 1975, the last time Gowery saw them – which was 30 years ago.
And so, we enter flashback mode: Gowery is finally lured to Nantucket, where his lawyer, Gilbert (Jordan Gelber, suitably sleazy) persuaded him to buy a house as an investment a few months earlier. Now, that house – which belonged to a world-famous children’s book author – is a crime scene, specifically a den for kiddie porn. And once Gowery (reluctantly) arrives on the island, he meets up with a colorful cast of characters, ranging from a no-nonsense local cop (a superb Stacy Sargeant, who also doubles as his latter-day secretary) to a former Vietnam veteran named McPhee (an underused but excellent Will Swenson), all of whom have some connection to each other as well as a recent Nantucket production of Gowery’s autobiographically-inspired play.
Without question, Guare’s story often careens like a ship that’s being tossed on a stormy sea, and the lack of a really compelling narrative can admittedly be frustrating. There’s also an abundance of not-that-funny in-jokes about Walt Disney, “Jaws” and Roman Polanski, along with almost-endless references to the work of the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges (embodied here by German Jaramilo). Finally, one wishes that Guare’s characters weren’t all essentially one-dimensional and stereotypical, although Zaks was extremely smart in casting such super-pros as Douglas Sills, Clea Alsip and Tina Benko (each of whom plays more than one role) and allowing them to do what they do best.
But ultimately, Guare provides us more than an electrocuted lobster or hastily order pizza to whet our appetites. He offers real food for thought about the importance of memory, the loss of innocence, the desire to create and the need to do the right thing. There’s both whimsy and wisdom in “Nantucket Sleigh Ride,” making this unusual work more than just another day at the beach.
Photos: T. Charles Erickson
Nantucket Sleigh Ride continues at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (150 West 65th Street) through May 5. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.lct.org for tickets.