'Nantucket Sleigh Ride': Theater Review

T Charles Erickson
John Larroquette (left) and Will Swenson in 'Nantucket Sleigh Ride'
Funny enough, but you'll forget it by the time you get home.
5/5/2019

John Larroquette stars in the new comedy written by John Guare and directed by Jerry Zaks, who previously collaborated on 'The House of Blue Leaves' and 'Six Degrees of Separation.'

The title of John Guare's raucous absurdist comedy is an old whaling term coined by sailors to describe being dragged across the ocean by a harpooned whale. It proves very apt for this latest collaboration of the playwright with director Jerry Zaks, previously responsible for the hugely successful Lincoln Center Theater productions of The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation. Nantucket Sleigh Ride leaves you disoriented as it careens across its directionless path, much like those hapless mariners must have felt.

The central character, Edmund Gowery, could be seen as a stand-in for the ever-adventurous, genre-shifting Guare, the author of many acclaimed theatrical works as well as the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Louis Malle's Atlantic City, but whose efforts in recent years have mostly proved disappointing. Played by John Larroquette, Edmund is a successful venture capitalist who was once a promising playwright but was never able to write a follow-up on his one successful work, Internal Structure of Stars, produced in the 1970s.

As the play begins, Edmund is visited in his well-appointed office by adult siblings Poe (Adam Chanler-Berat) and Lilac (Grace Rex), who show him a book by Jorge Luis Borges that Edmund gave them 35 years earlier. The memory prompts a flashback to 1975, when Edmund made a fateful trip to Nantucket just as Jaws was exploding on movie screens.

It seems that Edmund, on the advice of his agent (Jordan Gelber), had used the proceeds from his first play to invest in the purchase of a Nantucket home once owned by a famous children's book author. Edmund is summoned by local police when it turns out that the house, currently owned by the author's daughter Elsie (Clea Alsip), is the site of a mail-order child porn ring. On the island, Edmund meets a gallery of colorful characters, including Poe and Lilac, at that time still children; Elsie's shrink husband Schuyler (Douglas Sills); and McPhee (Will Swenson), who claims to be Elsie's lover.

The plot of this ramshackle comedy defies easy explication. Suffice it to say that things get weirder and weirder as Edmund is forced to stay on the island and deal with various crises, even while receiving a juicy offer to write the screenplay for a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion, to be directed by Roman Polanski and set to star Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. Author Borges (German Jaramillo) pops up periodically to deliver literary epigrams. There's also an appearance by a cryogenically frozen Walt Disney (Sills), who wants Edmund to write an adaptation of the children's author's books, also to be directed by Polanski.  

Guare certainly hasn't lost his talent for crafting funny dialogue, although the evening's many jokes about pedophilia seem ill-advised these days. There are many hilarious one-liners (Edmund tells the sloppily dressed Poe and Lilac at their first meeting, "You look like what I read about Brooklyn") as well as amusing running gags like Edmund discovering that practically everyone with whom he comes into contact has been involved in a production of Internal Structure of Stars. But the play spins its wheels frantically while never going anywhere particularly interesting or rewarding.  

Larroquette, a four-time Emmy Award winner for the sitcom Night Court, expertly handles the play's comedic demands, getting many laughs with his deadpan facial expressions and aggrieved line readings. The supporting players, many of whom assume multiple roles, are also terrific, with Swenson and Sills the standouts for their manically funny, highly physical performances.

Zaks remains perfectly in tune with Guare's sensibilities, delivering a precisely calibrated staging that mines the work for all its humor. David Gallo's set designs and Emily Rebholz's costumes, including the most hideous pair of pants ever seen on a New York stage, make invaluable contributions as well. It's too bad, then, that the efforts of the hard-working performers and other creatives have been put in service of a trivial play that doesn't deserve them.

Venue: Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, New York
Cast: Clea Alsip, Tina Benko, Adam Chanler-Berat, Jordan Gelber, German Jaramillo, John Larroquette, Grace Rex, Stacey Sargent, Douglas Sills, Will Swenson
Playwright: John Guare
Director: Jerry Zaks
Set and projection designer: David Gallo
Costume designer: Emily Rebholz
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Music and sound designer: Mark Bennett
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater