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Theatre in Review: Nantucket Sleigh Ride (Lincoln Center Theater)

Adam Chanler-Berat, Douglas Sills, Grace Rex. T. Charles Erickson.

Some years ago, I knew a guy who worked as an accountant for one of the big fast-food companies. The corporate slogan, he said, was "what to eat when you don't know what to eat." I thought of him at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater the other night, concluding that John Guare's Nantucket Sleigh Ride is uniquely equipped to speak to him: It's what you write when you don't know what to write.

A comedy entirely about itself, Nantucket Sleigh Ride is a frantic tale that unfolds in the memory of Edmund Gowery -- Mundie to you -- an aging, successful New York businessman who, back in the seventies, was a playwright with a résumé that consisted entirely of a single Off Broadway blockbuster with the excruciatingly sensitive title The Internal Structure of Stars. In 1975, while Mundie awaits another kiss of inspiration from his muse, Gilbert, his lawyer, convinces him to purchase a house in Nantucket, to be used as an income-producing rental property. This seemingly sensible decision unleashes an avalanche of chaos: Mundie is summoned to Nantucket to answer charges of running a child pornography ring out of the vacation home he has, in fact, never visited. While there, he tangles with McPhee, a kooky, fast-talking Vietnam vet with an elaborate, if infallible, technique for electrocuting lobsters, and Schuyler, a child psychiatrist and community theatre director who may or may not be a wife-murderer. Both men are involved with Elsie, whose late father authored a series of beloved children's books coveted by the Walt Disney Organization. By the way, all of these characters -- and several others -- took part in a local production of The Internal Structure of Stars, and they all have it in for Mundie, who refused to attend.

Somehow -- don't ask me how -- Elsie either vanishes or is murdered; Schuyler flies to Los Angeles to make a deal with Disney; McPhee drops in and out, making wild-eyed accusations; and Mundie ends up saddled with Lilac and Poe, the larcenous and ferociously needy children of Elsie and Schuyler, while furiously grinding out a screenplay for Roman Polanski -- a remake of Suspicion, to star Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. Still with me? I haven't told you about the stash of indecent photos; Mundie's various girlfriends; the living room decorated à la René Magritte, complete with toy locomotive; the secretary who pops up and, apropos of nothing, performs her favorite monologue from Mundie's play; and the many appearances by Jorge Luis Borges, who wanders through, quoting himself and teaching Mundie how to use a laptop. Oh, and Walt Disney shows up, straight from the cryogenic tube, wielding a contract. "You won't put this in a play?," McPhee asks Mundie. Believe me, he will.

There's much more, but a mind can only take so much; I'll just mention in passing the mass obsession with the book and film of Jaws, the running gag about Roy Scheider, the 1938 all-midget western film The Terror or Tiny Town, the plot twist involving an abortion, and the jokes about tuberculosis and Charles Manson. The play is constructed like an M. C. Escher stairway, featuring a collection of twinned plot elements. Mundie has to contend with two disagreeable therapists; Elsie's alleged death is a ringer for the plot of Suspicion; the details of Mundie's complicated love life mirror McPhee's; and Mundie can't abandon Poe and Lilac because, as the autobiographical Internal Structure of Stars recalls, he was deserted, at age eleven, by his parents, who retired to a sanitarium for lung patients. I had my own doppelgänger experience at the Newhouse when I realized that I had seen an earlier version of Nantucket Sleigh Ride -- called Are You There, McPhee? -- at the McCarter Theatre in 2012, and I had long ago assumed that the script had been stashed in the darkest reaches of a desk drawer somewhere.

You'll be happy to hear that during the seven-year pause between productions, Guare has done much to prune the script of its most bizarre tangents. (Among other things, Are You There, McPhee? was loaded with puppets; several characters have also been dispensed with.) At the Newhouse, Jerry Zaks' direction earns several substantial laughs as the sliding doors on the triple-tier upstage wall of David Gallo's set reveal yet another eccentric intruder intent on driving Mundie away from his work. The role of Mundie is really only a narrative device, and the little that we know about him isn't appealing, but John Larroquette does his formidable best with it, juggling situations and characters with aplomb. Tina Benko is a riot as Mundie's two lovers -- Gilbert's Argentine wife, who speaks five languages, and "the political correspondent, drama critic, and skin-care editor at Seventeen magazine." Douglas Sills and Will Swenson make a convincing pair of oddballs as Schuyler and McPhee. The likes of Adam Chanler-Berat, Jordan Gelber, and Stacey Sargeant carry on like the pros they are.

In addition to Gallo's scenic concept, which cleverly facilitates the play's fast action, Howell Binkley's lighting ranges from sunlight washes to carefully tailored isolation looks and a intentionally vulgar, colorful ballyhoo for a wedding reception with a disco beat. Many of Emily Rebholz's costumes function as sight gags, including the awful-looking, ill-fitting madras pants that Mundie is forced to don, and Disney's suit, which comes complete with an array of icicles on the shoulders. Mark Bennett supplies spy thriller-style original music along with a battery of effects (taxis, airplanes, street traffic) and sound effects that boost any number of lighting cues.

Nantucket Sleigh Ride is really a kind of carryall containing a load of stray plot devices -- including some remarkably tasteless jokes -- that Guare has strenuously, but unsuccessfully, attempted to arrange into a coherent and amusing pattern. It's a play about the difficulty of writing a play, and the solution is the play itself. It doesn't get more insular than that. Let's hope that, after all these years, Guare has gotten this one out of his system. -- David Barbour

(15 April 2019)

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