Anyone who doesn’t have a cottage on the Cape or the Islands, as they say in Massachusetts, might be puzzled by the title of John Guare’s new play. “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” is no Revere Beach amusement park ride, but an old whaling term for the death throes of a whale that is still attached to the harpoon — and the boatload of sailors who threw the deadly weapon — that’s slowly draining the life out of him.
This new work by the author of “The House of Blue Leaves,” “Six Degrees of Separation,” and “A Free Man of Color,” among other lauded plays, does feel a bit like a wild ride — if not to the death, to a dizzying headache. Despite a smart production director by Jerry Zaks (who also directed “House of Blue Leaves” and “Six Degrees”) and played to the professional hilt here by a company of game actors, the point of this absurdist farce is maddeningly elusive.
The general theme that has always consumed Guare — the human comedy played out in the face of death — more or less anchors the events of an unhinged plot featuring Edmund Gowery (John Larroquette), a venture capitalist who has been snookered by a couple of strangers into talking about his past literary success (and his current failures of purpose).
In a previous professional life Gowery wrote one single play called “Internal Structure of Stars.” Alas, he never produced another word. These days, this businessman wryly admits, “I convince people to sell things they love to buy things they don’t want.”
Apropos of nothing, one of his visitors asks Gowery if there have been any attempts to revive that seminal 1975 play. “They revive every other play,” this ardent fan rationalizes. “They might as well revive you.” That’s a rich inside joke, very funny, very Guaresque, but Gowery blows them off. “You look like what I read about Brooklyn,” he sneers, landing one of the scribe’s more pointed comedic digs.
Swerving suddenly into Guare’s surrealist lane, the visitors announce that they have completely lost their memory of that 1975 summer they spent on Nantucket — and they need Gowery’s recollections to fill in that big blank. In fact, they are unable to go on with their lives without his memories.
So far, so fine. Larroquette has perfected a droll, deadpan delivery that suits Guare’s under-the-radar brand of humor. Handsomely coiffed, manicured and outfitted (designer Emily Rebholz nails his style twice, once with an elegant business suit and then with another set of threads in summer white), Gowery is a sturdy character, strong enough to take whatever Guare might throw at him. And that sudden lurch into absurdism alerts us to expect more surprises ahead.
Once Gowery acknowledges that he has deliberately expunged all memories of that long-ago summer when he knew his visitors as Poe (Adam Chanler-Berat) and Lilac (Grace Rex), the play gives up any hold it might have had on logic or structure. Gowery admits that he had an affair that summer with his lawyer’s wife, and that the Nantucket police accused him of running a child pornography ring out of his beach cottage.
The one thing he can’t bear to face about that summer, however, is that he found himself unable to write another play — or anything else, for that matter. That does seem to be the crux of this “Sleigh Ride.” But rather than hurl some harpoons at Gowery’s white whale, Guare evades and avoids that painful subject. Instead, he gives us sightings of Jorge Luis Borges and cameos of giant lobsters.
Zaks jazzes up the proceedings with some nice farcical imagery. One definitive take on the summer of 1975 is the sight gag of a plane full of passengers who are all glued to copies of “Jaws.” (“She reached down. She could not feel her foot.”) There are also laughs when just about every native on Nantucket proudly tells Gowery of having played a role in the local community theater production of “Internal Structure of Stars.”
But by the time Guare gets to the giant lobster (don’t ask) he seems to have run out of imagination — or the inclination to round up his disjointed memories and wrestle them into a coherent plot with some kind of thematic backbone. Some of his avid admirers might be satisfied with the play’s many disordered flashes of his wit. But as for me, I confess that after a while, I couldn’t feel my foot.