Off-Broadway Review: “Nantucket Sleigh Ride”

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  • Joseph Verlezza, Associate New York Critic

In the 18th and 19th centuries, new phrases entered the language of the sailors who took to the sea off the island of Nantucket, one of the whaling capitals of the world during that period. One specific expression “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” describes what happens when a harpooned whale drags the sailors in their long boat across the surface of the water in the wake of waves until it dies. During this treacherous event, which was a fight to the finish, sometimes the sailors also perished. John Guare’s somewhat new play (revised from a previous 2012 production at McCarter Theater) is aptly titled since the audience is only given enough to trawl over the surface of the story and characters without any depth of understanding until the play dies or the audience gives up trying to comprehend it. The switching from reality to the surreal and absurd becomes too confusing and too big a whale of a tale to comprehend the message or purpose of the play. Stopping half way through the farcical memory ride for an intermission seemed unnecessary for a ninety-five-minute play.

It is a somewhat autobiographical play in the sense that the playwright has written about his personal experience and thoughts on creativity, memory, childhood abandonment and capitalism. It would not be beneficial to list the endless plot twists and turns that may lead to just as much confusion as experienced while watching the antics of this rapid-fire farce. Connecting “Jaws,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion,” Roman Polanski, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Jorge Luis Borges, Walt Disney, child porn, adultery, murder, and an electrified lobster to solve the puzzle of two abandoned amnesiac children, that results in a happy ending is no easy task.

What makes this production entertaining is the incredible cast led by veteran John Larroquette whose deadpan delivery and comic timing continue to be part of his legacy. Accompanying him on this bumpy ride is the ever so versatile Douglas Sills adding panache to several different characters. Stacey Sargeant gives a fine comedic turn in dual roles of the secretary and police woman Aubrey Coffin. Director Jerry Zaks moves things along at a very quick pace and an inventive multi- level set design by David Gallo produce a super sleek product for the Lincoln Center Mitzi E. Newhouse stage.

The utmost effort of the cast and creative team cannot overcome the pitch and roll of this tumultuous ride that never dives beneath the surface to discover the meaning of the contrived story. There must be hidden treasures of wit and wisdom buried somewhere in the script but they fail to be discovered in this current production. Mr. Guare will certainly be remembered as one of the great American playwrights but this current example of his unique style and humor in studying the human condition will soon be forgotten.



The cast of “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” features Clea Alsip, Tina Benko, Adam Chanler-Berat, Jordan Gelber, Germán Jaramillo, John Larroquette, Grace Rex, Stacey Sargeant, Douglas Sills, and Will Swenson.

The production features sets by David Gallo, costumes by Emily Rebholz, lighting by Howell Binkley, and original music and sound by Mark Bennett. 

“Nantucket Sleigh Ride” runs in the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center Theater through Sunday May 5, 2019. For more information on the production, including the performance schedule and how to purchase tickets, visit Running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.

Photo: John Larroquette and Will Swenson in “Nantucket Sleigh Ride.” Credit: T. Charles Erickson