Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 5, $92
A one-hit-wonder searches for his long-lost identity in John Guare’s bizarre wild romp, Nantucket Sleigh Ride, a fabulistic memory play about a memory play that continues at the Mitzi E. Newhouse through May 5. Only Guare’s second play to premiere at Lincoln Center since 1992’sFour Baboons Adoring the Sun (the other being 2010’s A Free Man of Color), the witty and slyly urbane Nantucket Sleigh Ride is again charmingly directed by four-time Tony winner Jerry Zaks, who previously helmed Guare’s Tony-winning classics The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation. Early in the play, not-too-successful venture capitalist Edmund Gowery (John Larroquette), known as Mundie, asks his therapist, Dr. Harbinger (Douglas Sills), if he’d like him to sign a copy of his only play, Internal Structure of Stars. “Why do you need to sign it?” the doctor says. “Because this play is me!” Mundie answers. “Who are you?” Dr. Harbinger responds. It’s a funny running gag that as Mundie meets a wide variety of people, almost all of them have been influenced by the play in one way or another, but nobody wants him to sign their beloved copy.
It’s 2010, and for the first time in a long time, Mundie, who wrote the play more than thirty-five years before, is back in the limelight, his name an answer to a clue in the Sunday Times crossword. While enjoying the sudden burst of attention, he is interrupted by two people, Poe (Adam Chanler-Berat) and Lilac (Grace Rex), who have tracked him down in order to fill in their missing memory of what happened to them on Nantucket in the summer of 1975. They appear as if it is still 1975, eager young children with supposed bright futures ahead of them, even though they are portrayed by adult actors. The narrative then returns to that faraway time and place, with Mundie often addressing the audience directly in the present, offering details and sharing the thoughts in his head as he traveled to Nantucket and encountered some very strange goings-on, involving blind Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (Germán Jaramillo), filmmaker and accused child molester Roman Polanski, a cryogenically frozen, cartoon-parent-killing Walt Disney (Sills), the book and movie versions of Jaws, painter Rene Magritte, kiddie porn, Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, and a twelve-pound lobster.
The unmarried and childless Mundie is in love with Antonia (Tina Benko), the exotic mother of two — she’s a fiery flamenco dancer who speaks five languages and is working on her doctorate at Wharton — who is married to his lawyer, Gilbert (Jordan Gelber). Gilbert also represents Elsie (Clea Alsip), the daughter of famous children’s book writer Clarence Spooner and the mother of Poe and Lilac; her husband, Schuyler (Sills), is a devious sort who seems unconcerned that local dude McPhee (Will Swenson) is in love with his wife. Mundie also has to be careful what he says and does around police officer Aubrey Coffin (Stacey Sargeant), who appears to have it in for him. Whew; got all that?
David Gallo’s marvelous set is anchored by a back wall of rows of doors that open up to roll furniture in and out and reveal various characters on one upper level who interject at opportune, and inopportune, moments, delivering poetic lines, non sequiturs, key points, and random nonsense. “What if nightmares were true?” Borges declares. Tony and Emmy winner Larroquette (Night Court, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying) is sensational as Mundie, a selfish man forced to face some questionable decisions he made in the past. The 110-minute intermissionless play, a rewrite of Guare’s Are You There, McPhee?, which ran briefly at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre in 2012, is a satisfying dish of magical surrealism, even though the labyrinthine plot goes a bit haywire in the second act, with a few annoying holes and absurdist diversions, although Guare harpoons most of it in by the end. (Be sure to pay close attention, as many of the little details are more significant and relevant than you might at first realize.)
Although the tale is centered around writing, from Mundie’s play and potential screenplay to Borges’s poems to Spooner’s kids’ books, it is about much more; Guare, who wrote his first plays when he was eleven, the same age as Mundie’s protagonist — and Mundie based Internal Structure of Stars on things that happened to him when he was eleven — is delving into issues of childhood dreams and how that leads to adult successes and failures. “Lightning struck me once. That’s once more than it strikes most people,” Mundie acknowledges. Guare is also equating writers with psychiatrists, both professions in which memories are excavated. “I have developed a revolutionary technique that can go deep into your subconscious and dredge up memory after memory, crying out to be transformed into plays,” Dr. Harbinger tells Mundie. A new play at Lincoln Center by New York City native Guare, a Pulitzer and Oscar nominee who has won the Tony, the Obie, and the Olivier and who recently turned eighty-one, is an event unto itself, and Nantucket Sleigh Ride lives up to those expectations. It will also have you searching to see if there are any key gaps in your childhood memories.