New plays, even those running close to two hours, tend to forgo an intermission. An exception is John Guare’s “Nantucket Sleigh Ride,” which had its world premiere Monday at LCT’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre. For good reason, there’s an intermission after a relatively short first act. Audience members, not to mention the actors, needs to catch their collective breath. Guare has packed enough plot into those first 45 minutes to fuel a dozen plays by Mamet or LaBute.
John Larroquette plays Edmund Gowery, a contemporary businessman who, 50 years ago, wrote one successful play, “Internal Structure of Stars,” but never had the inspiration to write another, much to his regret. “Nantucket Sleigh Ride,” for the most part, is a flashback to the events following a 1975 amateur production of “Internal Structure” in Nantucket when this promising playwright bought a house on the island as an investment only to discover that a kiddie-porn ring has been operating from the property.
The young Gowery copes with not writing a second play by working on two film projects that drop into his lap while dealing with the Nantucket police. One screenplay is a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion,” to star Jane Fonda and Robert Redford and be directed by Roman Polanski. Only slightly less dazzling is the other project, to be produced by Disney from a series of children’s books written by the father (or maybe it’s the grandfather) of a woman named Elsie (Clea Alsip) who starred in the Nantucket production of “Internal Structure,” which Gowery refused to see because he hated amateur actors, much to the regret of everyone on the island but especially Elsie who never recovered from the snub.
This brief synopsis of the first act leaves out two adulterous affairs, the frequent appearances of Jorge Luis Borges (who happens to be Gowery’s favorite writer), the movie and the novel “Jaws” (which was the must-see movie and the must-read novel of 1975) and the amnesia of Elsie’s two sexually exploited children (Adam Chanler-Berat and Grace Rex), who set “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” in motion with their visit to the older Gowery’s office.
Because there’s more action than an action movie, Larroquette doesn’t so much perform in this comedy as he tells it to us. Often, his conversations with the other actors are not face to face; rather, the second level of David Gallo’s set provides a kind of panoramic cupboard that opens to reveal various people whom Gowery speaks to in his imagination or on the phone.
Larroquette is a magnificent narrator. He also segues miraculously between the present and the past to convey both an older man’s smugness (for being wealthy) and a younger man’s angst (for being creatively burnt out). Even more inspired is German Jaramillo, who makes a most enchanting Jorge Luis Borges.
While attempting to follow the first act’s ever-twisting plot, however, one’s mind may drift to incidental problems with the play and its production. For starters, Jerry Zaks’ direction emphasizes the farcical situations, but most of the eye-popping performances are merely manic and not remotely amusing. Then there are Gowery’s many quotes from Borges, especially his “Labyrinths,” which bear almost no relation to the many labyrinths of Guare’s story. Also, Gowery uses a rotary phone in the 1975 scenes but makes the 2019 mistake of punching it. Over two decades ago, Paul Rudnick used that joke to much better effect in his “In & Out” screenplay. And very odd is Gowery’s “Suspicion” rewrite. He is asked to give the source of the heroine’s wealth, because Hitchcock failed to reveal it in the original. Um, no. The parents of Joan Fontaine’s character are rich, hence she has money.
That’s the first act of “Nantucket Sleigh Ride.” In the second act, the triple-cast Douglas Sills shows up as Walt Disney, fresh from a cryogenic chamber, his suit festooned with icicles (costumes by Emily Rebholz). Even more momentous, we learn that “Nantucket sleigh ride” is an old sailors’ expression that describes what happened when a harpooned whale used to drag a boat through the ocean waters. Usually, the animal died, but sometimes it was the men who were plunged to their death. Plays sometimes experience a similar sinking feeling.