Thar she blows. Nantucket Sleigh Ride, the titillating title of John Guare’s befuddling new memory play, is a whaling term. It recalls when harpooned blubbery beasts would drag sailors across the ocean until either the animals or the sailors or both finally ended up dead.
If only this comedy at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater led to someplace so conclusive. The show, which reunites the author with director Jerry Zaks, who has guided The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation, just bobs along and then stops. Plays don’t have to tie things up with a bow, but a clear sense of an author’s intention is typically a plus.
Multiple doors can be a good indicator of farce territory, and this show’s three-tiered set has 30 of them. Portals don’t slam; they slide to reveal some amusing and thoughtful moments, but not enough of them.
John Larroquette (Night Court, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), a sly comic Emmy and Tony winner, anchors the production as Edmund Gowery. He’s a venture capitalist with a complicated life, plus a secretary (Stacey Sargeant) and a mistress, Antonia (Tina Benko), who’s married to his lawyer, Gilbert (Jordan Gelber).
Gowery is also the one-hit-wonder author of the 70s play The Internal Structure of Stars. Scenes from it are quoted regularly by various characters. Although it’s revered on a near-Our Town level, passages always sound sort of lame.
The memory of the old play is roused by a clue in the New York Times Sunday crossword – which in turn launches its own puzzle. It's set in motion by Poe (Adam Chanler-Berat) and Lilac (Grace Rex), strange siblings who arrive, uninvited, with a book by Jorge Luis Borges (Germán Jaramillo) that Gowery autographed 35 years earlier. The sibs can’t remember anything about that time, and they demand that he fill them in.
Gowery flashes back to nutty encounters with Poe and Lilac, their dad Schuyler (Douglas Sills), a manipulative child psychoanalyst, and their mom Elsie (Clea Alsip), a kids’ book author who was devastated when Gowery curtly declined to see her production of The Internal Structure of Stars. Also on hand is McPhee (Will Swenson), who says he’s Elsie’s lover. Is he? Questions arise.
Guare whirls these wackos and others together as the story skitters here, there, everywhere. Plot threads involve a child pornography ring, Roman Polanski, Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Walt Disney, cryogenics and the wackiest lobster boil you’ve ever seen.
The cast is game, and the production is good-looking with striking scenery by David Gallo, catchy costumes by Emily Rebholz and moody lighting by Howell Binkley. But plot strands never tie together in satisfying fashion. Guare seems to be chasing any number of themes – the complex and convoluted natures of memory, success and creativity. Or not. For all its smarts and high spirits, Nantucket Sleigh Ride isn’t so much a whale of a tale. It’s one that got away.