John Guare’s new play “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” takes its audience on a wild trip through churning waters. And just like with the whalers of old — harpooned to their robust adversary, bouncing along the waves and uncertain of their destination — it is the beast that is in control, fighting capture all the way.
The play is a compelling mystery of shaky clues and unreliable characters, with incursions of fantasy and voices long gone. Guare’s hero, played with befuddled determination by a captivating John Larroquette, dives deep into his past, and into a crucial summer on Nantucket.
Guare and director Jerry Zaks start the humor quotient in the play’s fanciful return to 1975, while all the time keeping a more intricate voyage on course. Kudos to prop master Alison Mantilla for those paperback editions of “Jaws,” and to Mark Bennett’s music, which hints at the notion of epic pursuit.
The resonance of both pop phenomenon and a blockbuster plotline echo the hero’s strides through time, memory and the agenda of his colorful associates.
Dreams are pivotal, and the play is like one as it celebrates the wild conflations of desire and circumstance.
At its core, this Lincoln Center Theater production presents the shaggy bewilderment of a man confronting his past. Larroquette’s character, Edmund Gowery, is a one-time playwright, hounded by his singular playwriting success, and brought back to the crossroads. A surprise visit from a pair of mysterious siblings, played with chilling directness by Adam Chanler-Berat and Grace Rex, kick off Edmund’s journey, an expedition in which the usual dimensions of geography do not apply.
And that is a very good thing, as Guare builds this intoxicating dramatic cocktail so that it brims with his characteristic affectionate humor. Guare employs a few guideposts in this shape-shifting drama. Edmund’s lone success as a writer keeps returning, in the formative experience of random characters, in a pivotal production on Nantucket, and as biography and quest for the author.
There is that echo of the pursuing demon (without any explicit reference to Melville or Ahab), a generational conflict over a literary heritage, the reach of the Disney empire, and the long shadow of Jorge Luis Borges, whose legacy of magical realism supplies both a structural and thematic device.
“Labyrinths” by Borges — and the author’s own walking spirit — are pivotal. And the notion of bewildering journeys and blind turns keeps “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” spinning along, throughout its alluring construction.
The terrific cast, anchored by Larroquette, features lively portraits, with standout performances from Stacey Sargeant, Tina Benko, Douglas Sills and Will Swenson. Zaks’ direction keeps the focus moving at a jaunty bounce, and David Gallo’s set serves the multiple avenues of the story’s artful turns.
Like a dream — or a nightmare — some tangents lead to baffling juxtapositions. But that’s the territory, rich and strange, and one of a kind, full of reward and insight, as “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” skips over the swells of the author’s deep, uncharted sea.