Can you have a “shaggy whale” story? John Guare’s ranging, sometimes funny, always odd Nantucket Sleigh Ride (at Lincoln Center Theater/Mitzi E. Newhouse to May 5) may be it. This ambling comedy tells the story of a writer, Edmund Gowery (John Larroquette), who somehow gets mixed up in a strange, wild tale of murder and movie chicanery on Nantucket in 1975.
A “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” historically refers to what happened after harpooners struck a whale in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Nantucket was known as the whaling capital of the world.
The whale then would take off across the ocean, and drag the men in its wake, either to their death or its own. The sleigh ride was the ride the men found themselves on that they could not control.
This play, directed as wacky comedy by Jerry Zaks with attractive, sleek sets and projections by David Gallo, takes Gowery on a similarly bizarre, extreme journey; we know at the beginning that whatever happened has transformed Gowery from a playwright into a venture capitalist in the present day. The play, a surreally minded, unapologetically scrambled farce, outlines why.
There are echoes of Guare’s most famous play, Six Degrees of Separation, in Nantucket Sleigh Ride; in which a fairly real-sounding situation gets studded by the hyper-real and otherworldly; a past event reported and remembered in the present. The plot is byzantine, but folds in Roman Polanski, two mysterious children, Hollywood, and Jaws.
The two strange children at the heart of the play, to whom Gowery ends up becoming a de facto parent, are without parents and living in another reality entirely—there are shades of Peter and Wendy in Peter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland.
Peter Benchley’s novel was published in 1974, and everybody seems to be reading it in this play. The shadow of the book is never far away, a reminder that the success of modern literature is bound up in film-making (and that the movie was filmed on Cape Cod). This is what Gowery knows; he wants desperately to be a success—how much of himself he is willing to sell to Hollywood, how much he will do to protect himself, and save himself. What price is art: financial, personal, and upon the culture at large?
Actors including Stacey Sergeant, Adam Chanler-Berat, Grace Rex, Tina Benko (very funny), Douglas Sills, and Will Swenson play a gallery of multiple supporting characters, from exotic girlfriends to deranged stalkers and frosty-mannered law enforcement and a villainous Walt Disney (keen to monopolize young minds), who threaten to derail Gowery’s plans. Germán Jaramillo plays a wily-looking Jorge Luis Borges, armed with a series of opaque literary homilies that even he looks baffled to be saying.
At the performance I was at, one confused lady at intermission asked her theater companions what the hell was going on; they explained patiently, but you may empathize with her puzzlement.
There is no need to outline the maze-like series of absurdities and twists the play takes, but you may wonder—like my seat neighbor—what the point of all it was (even when a lobster is electrocuted in one standout scene). The clash of real and surreal makes investing in the characters that much more tricky; the children just seem fantastically odd.
If you’ve seen Six Degrees, you will know Guare (who is also co-executive editor of the Lincoln Center Theater Review; be sure to pick up the current excellent edition pegged to this show) likes to contort time, reality, and the pliability of human motivations. At the end of Nantucket Sleigh Ride, Gowery also confronts his art, indeed his professional destiny as a writer, and what makes an artist forever an artist whether they like it or not.