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Nantucket Sleigh Ride

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 18, 2019

Clea Alsip, Will Swenson, Germán Jaramillo,
John Larroquette, and Tina Benko
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

John Guare's plays often take audiences on maddening white-knuckle excursions through surrealistic and chaotic vistas. More than a few of them, such as the decidedly unruly A Free Man of Color from 2010, could have comfortably borne the title Nantucket Sleigh Ride, an old whaling term that refers to the wild ride that occurs when a whale is harpooned then frantically swims for its life, dragging a boatload of seamen on a perilous journey through churning waters.

But Guare's latest work, opening tonight at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, a play that carries the actual title Nantucket Sleigh Ride, is less a deep dive into terra incognita than it is a quite funny and surprisingly heartwarming memory play. (For the record, an earlier version of the play, then called Are You There, McPhee?, was produced at Princeton's McCarter Theater in 2012.)

Granted, the memories that arise do so amid flights of fancy randomly pouring from the burbling mind of the main character, Mundie, a playwright-turned-Wall Street broker, depicted by a charismatic John Larroquette. We join Mundie as he embarks on a journey that takes him from Manhattan to Nantucket to find something he has lost within himself back in the 1970s when he was the golden boy writer of his one successful and popular play. He has been in creative lockdown ever since, hence his career switch to a job he describes as "convincing people to sell things they love to buy things they don't want."

In true Guare fashion, along the way Mundie has a run-in with a hefty lobster, gets implicated in a porno ring, becomes a surrogate father to a couple of temporarily abandoned children (Adam Chanler-Berat and Grace Rex), and meets up with his idol, Argentinian surrealist writer Jorge Louis Borges (Germán Jaramillo), as well as a deceased and cryogenically frozen but still chatty Walt Disney (Douglas Sills). Other bits of the puzzle that emerge from Mundie's unreeling mind include references to the movie "Jaws," a screenwriting job for Roman Polanski, cameo appearances by Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and a treasured and valuable collection of children's books. So, yes, a tad unusual, but in its own way, logical, the way that Tom Stoppard brings logical explanations for the behavior of his characters in such plays as After Magritte. It's quite a parlor trick, and Guare manages it with great artistry and an altogether praiseworthy amount of control.

Happily, director Jerry Zaks also does a wonderful job of keeping the entire enterprise floating on air as the story unfolds farce-like on David Gallo's set, designed to look like three tiers of doors, most of which slide open as a group to reveal the oddments that pop into Mundie's mind at any given moment. Larroquette exudes charm by the bucketful, and the rest of the cast make for a delightful ensemble, so much so that the whole play feels grandly choreographed. The other cast members are Jordan Gelber as Mundie's attorney, Will Swenson as the enigmatic McPhee, and, in multiple roles, Stacey Sargeant, Tina Benko, and Clea Alsip. Certainly, Nantucket Sleigh Ride bears a Guareish phantasmagorical quality. But if you allow the plot to unravel of its own accord, you'll find that the ride is fast and fun and tenderhearted without triggering any sort of mental whiplash.

Nantucket Sleigh Ride
Through May 5
Mitzi E. Newhouse at Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge