Monday, April 29, 2019

Nantucket Sleigh Ride - A Few Bumps In The Road

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Barely remembered images from childhood collide with recollections others simply don't want to revisit in John Guare's Nantucket Sleigh Ride. The show offering an interesting take on the idea of a memory play, now at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center through May 5.

It's 2010 and Edmund Gowery (John Larroquette) is a Wall Street executive. Someone who, if not a member of the so-called 1%, is certainly in that neighborhood. Yet more than three decades earlier he was an up-and-coming young playwright whose major effort, Internal Structure of Stars, was considered a masterwork. One of those pieces just about everybody back then performed in, tried out for or used as an audition piece at least once. Edmund recalling those days, when he actually does, with nothing more than a sense of tired bemusement. Though it does irk him that he has never been asked to autograph a copy of his work. 

Edmund's well-ordered life is suddenly upended when two figures from his past suddenly appear. Poe (Adam Chanler-Berat) and his sister Lilac (Grace Rex) having tracked Edmund down in an attempt to learn exactly what happened thirty-five years earlier. During a time they were children, living with their mother off the coast of Massachusetts, on the island of Nantucket. The story then flashes back to 1975 when Gowery was a 30-year-old New York playwright basking in his recent artistic notoriety. He is also more than a little full of himself; being either somewhat brusque or downright rude to those he does not know or has no time for. Edmund is also in the midst of a torrid affair with Antonia (Tina Benko). The very beautiful wife of his middle-aged literary agent, Gilbert (Jordan Gelber).

It takes a call from Nantucket police officer Aubrey Coffin (Stacey Sargeant) concerning the subject of child pornography to bring Edmund to Nantucket for the very first time. He having previously purchased a house there. Site unseen, for tax purposes and on Gilbert's advice. A house complete with tenants. Said tenants consisting of Poe, Lilac, their mother Elsie (Clea Alsip) and husband Schuyler (Douglas Sills). Or has the mysterious McPhee (Will Swenson), taken Schuyler's place in Elsie's bed and her heart? This question one Edmund is soon trying to figure out as both men clearly have different perspectives on the issue.

As Edmund attempts to navigate the ins and outs of the above mentioned relationship, he also finds himself somewhat persona non grata on the island for having previously refused an invitation to attend a performance of his play. His actions in this regard sparking a plot of revenge against him. If that weren't enough, Edmund soon finds himself a subject of a possible murder investigation. Coffin not looking to frame Edmund for anything he didn't do, but clearly relishing the possibility of putting him away should the evidence continue to point to him as the guilty party.

As events continue to unfold, the question quickly becomes whose truth matters the most? Is it more important to remember things as they actually occurred, or is it better knowing why they happened the way they did? Especially if one wants to avoid hurting those affected by the events in question. There's also a gentle warning throughout about treating other people with respect. As your actions towards them just might come back to haunt you when you least expect it. Something Edmund learns again and again as he struggle to discern just how much of what he is experiencing is actually real.

By the of the first act, as things continue to go exponentially off the rails for Edmund, the entire play ends up taking on an almost farcical context. Matters taking a sharp turn into Twilight Zone territory, with one having absolutely no idea where things will go after intermission. Or exactly how Guare will be able pull it all together going forward.

Unfortunately more often than not, he doesn't. The pace of the show soon beginning to slow to a crawl with what was shown before never allowed to come full circle. Guare and director Jerry Zaks taking great delight in tantalizing everyone with the idea of numerous possibilities; but without proper closure, one can't help but feel a little cheated by the end result. The work simply too uneven to really allow the audience to connect with the various characters. It also doesn’t go far enough either comedically or dramatically to make a lasting impact.

Larroquette give a fine performance, although perhaps a wig or some other piece of clothing would have worked to make him better appear 35 years younger in the flashback sequences. Playing someone rather befuddled for a good part of the play, it’s a treat to see his character suddenly come alive when he finds inspiration in the unlikeliest of places. While seemingly breaking the confines of time and space in the process. Chanler-Berat and Rex are nicely earnest and deliberately annoying as youngsters living happily in their own world until it's all pulled out from under them. The rest of the cast, several playing multiple roles, are all enjoyable enough. Swenson doing a standout turn as Elsie's possible boyfriend/stalker McPhee.

Nantucket Sleigh Ride – an old whaling term – poses a complex question about the power and fragility of memory, but it lacks the overall spark to make the show offer anything more than a passing interest on the subject.

Featuring: Stacey Sargeant (Secretary/Aubrey Coffin), John Larroquette (Edmund Gowery), Adam Chanler-Berat (Poe), Grace Rex (Lilac), Jordan Gelber (Gilbert), Tina Benko (Antonia/Alice), Douglas Sills (Dr. Harbinger/Schuyler/Walt Disney), Germán Jaramillo (Jorge Luis Borges), Clea Alsip (She/Elise), Will Swenson (McPhee).

Nantucket Sleigh Ride
By John Guare

Sets and Projections: David Gallo
Costumes: Emily Rebholz
Lighting: Howell Binkley
Original Music and Sound: Mark Bennett
Stage Manager: Janet Takami
Assistant Stage Manager: Karen Evanouskas
Casting: Daniel Swee
Dramatrug: Anne Cattaneo
Director of Marketing: Linda Mason Ross
General Manager: Jessica Niebanck
Production Manager: Paul Smithyman
General Press Agent: Philip Rinaldi

Directed by Jerry Zaks

Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center
Address: 150 West 65th Street
Tickets: (212) 501-3201 or /
Running time: 2 Hours, 5 Minutes, one intermission
Closes: May 5, 2019

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