Nantucket Sleigh Ride is a play that has two personalities – one farcical, the other dramatic, which presents an obstacle that director Jerry Zaks elides with pizzazz. The humor at the core of the play is very dark indeed. Through all the farce, it asks a key question – What is the true value of memory? Do we really need to sear every moment in our brains, or is it kinder to let some fade away?
The story centers on Edmund Gowery (a leonine John Larrouquette), playwright turned financier, whose one hit play haunts him. A cerebral soap opera, “Internal Structure of Stars” is a tale of love’s memory lost. Alas, Fate drives Gowery to relive that memory as he reluctantly retrieves another.
Thus we are transported to Nantucket, in the summer of 1975. Jaws is everywhere. So are a slew of actors who were in an amateur production of “Internal Structure of Stars,” and Gowery seems to meet every one of them, including stern police woman Aubrey Coffin (Stacy Sargeant), whose portrayal of Gowery’s tubercular mother was supposed to set her on the road to stardom. Gowery had dismissed an invitation to attend that Nantucket production, dooming it to failure (in their minds), spawning a series of tragic events which reached crisis point that August of 1975.
It is a testament to their talent, and to Larrouquette himself, that all of the actors can stand on stage with an imposing tv star blessed with natural timing, and hold their own. Working as ensemble, they nonetheless create vivid individual characters, including the enigmatic poet Jorge Luis Borges (Germán Jaramillo) who weaves in and out of the narrative, spouting cheery epigrams about death and nightmare. All is color and variety, from sexy Antonia (Tina Benko), Gowery’s old flame with her Dolores del Rio accent and fabulous pantsuits, to frenetic, lobster-toting McPhee (Will Swenson) madly in love with sweet, ill-fated Elsie, to Elsie’s smarmy husband Schuyler (Douglas Sills), to the Children of the Corn -- I mean their son and daughter -- whose arrival on Larrouquette’s office doorstep had initially set the sleigh in motion. As the peculiar brother and sister Poe and Lilac, Adam Chanler-Berat and Grace Rex are hysterical and disturbing by turns. It’s their lost memory Gowery is loath to retrieve, but you don’t say no to the Children…
Director Jerry Zaks knows just how to build comedy without forcing it; keeping the energy flowing without rushing his actors or letting them fall. He is deft, directorial and hands off at the same time. Not one cue is dropped; not one comedic moment left unexploited. Emily Rebholz’s costumes hit the mark with a light touch — satin jumpsuit, sandals with socks, madras trousers - every detail instantly establishes character. In creating depth out of a small playing space, David Gallo’s ingenious set utilizes the vertical space as a living, backdrop, with myriad doors sliding almost whimsically to reveal characters, real and imagined, from Gowery’s past. As the stage set glides forward, lighting designer Howell Binkley creates both theatrical and filmic effects.
Nantucket Sleigh Ride is a whale of a show. The script is well written, but the secret to the play’s success lies in the brilliant performances of a perfectly cast group of actors. In less intelligent hands the sleigh wouldn’t dash through the waves with such success. Thank goodness for Jerry Zaks.
(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
"When Edmund Gowery, “’70s playwright,” shows up as the answer to 57 Across in a crossword puzzle in The New York Times, a giant Borgesian wormhole gapes open. Out of it emerges the plot of Nantucket Sleigh Ride, the newish John Guare play that opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater on Monday. That plot can hardly be summarized, let alone spoiled; it’s a shaggy whale story designed to defy all logic but a dream’s. Also like a dream, it almost instantly dissolves in the light."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"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."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"This new work by the author of The House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation, and A Free Man of Color, among other lauded plays, does feel a bit like a wild ride — if not to the death, to a dizzying headache. Despite a smart production directed by Jerry Zaks (who also directed House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees) and played to the professional hilt here by a company of game actors, the point of this absurdist farce is maddeningly elusive."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety