Sage, pithy, philosophical quotes taken from the stories in Jorges Luis Borges’ Labyrinths serve as the humorous grist that flavors and drives the witty and complex Nantuket Sleigh Ride by John Guare, currently at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse. The delightful hybrid play (mystery, comedy, fantastical dream-like elements and wonderful “come to life” Rene Magritte painting ‘La Durée Poignardée’ [‘Time Transfixed’]) has an adroitly crafted, labyrinthine structure beautifully clarified with sets and projections by David Gallo and costumes by Emily Rebholtz
Jerry Zaks shepherds the ensemble with an impeccable sense of comedic pacing and precise staging to elucidate the characters and maintain a humorous, coherence throughout, while unraveling the mysteries. The artistic designers with Guare’s and Zaks’ prodigious collaboration help to make Sleigh Ride a whopping, helluva journey through the mind and life of the one-hit playwright Edmund Gowery, during the summer of 1975, a monumental time which changed the course of his life, seemingly forever. From then until the present, Gowery suppressed his artistic sensibilities, left playwriting and sought the empirical, material world of making lots and lots of money.
John Larroquette portrays Gowery with relaxed authenticity and a droll, witty moment-to-moment presence. As Gowery Larroquette navigates remembrances of the summer of 1975, with aplomb. And noting that memory is a filter of age, wisdom and a myriad of emotions, Larroquette deftly filters these-the surprise, upset, fear and concern as he steps from narrator back to the past as actor in his memory. Guare’s vehicle of conveyance using present, filtered memory and past is striking, and Laroquette manages to bridge the changing time referents believably. His older narrative persona channels his youthful self with wry, pointed irony.
We easily accept these filters and joyfully follow Edmund (Mundie) on his madcap, convoluted adventures into the past as he introduces us to a “wicked” cast of characters. These include his mistresses, one of whom cheats on him with her husband (Tina Benko), insidious husbands (Douglas Sills, Jordan Gelber) an earnest, heartbroken lover (Will Swenson), a betraying and betrayed actress wife/lover (Clea Alsip) two kids Poe and Lilac (Adam Chanler-Berat, Grace Rex) the spirit of Jorge Luis Borges who wafts in and out of Mundie’s dreams with salient quotes (German Jaramillo), a cryonically challenged Walt Disney (Doublas Sills), who braves the summer heat of Gowery’s dreams to discuss a venture with him…and a few celebrities.
During the process of remembrance (the events enacted), Larroquette’s Gowery processes the mysterious circumstances of 1975 and grasps the opportunity to blossom into a caring individual who is sensitive to all forms of the truth, especially if it brings peace to others. By the play’s conclusion, through Gowery’s evolution, we understand that some nightmares (reference Borges) can work to one’s advantage, if we are flexible enough to learn from them. With enthusiasm Gowery experiences a resurrection of the artistic and imaginative part of himself. The younger persona which demonstrated a selfishness and self-dealing nature has been drowned reliving the “Nantucket Sleigh Ride.” (No spoiler alert here about what this means. See the play; it’s super.)
How Guare effects this plot structure of present, to flashback past, to dream sequence, to flashback past, to present tweaked with Borges’ tropes and quotes, contributes to the humor and entertaining zaniness of this play with a purpose. The dynamic begins at the top of the play and segues with a usual device which Guare makes more intriguing. Edmund Gowery finishes a congratulatory phone call about his reference as a playwright in the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. The symbolism is smart. He’s a clue in a crossword. But who indeed is Edmund Gowery who left off the stresses of success after his first and last Broadway hit Internal Structure of Stars, a “luminous memory play” influenced by Borges?
When his secretary (Stacey Sargeant) brings in his own lost copy of Borges’ Labyrinths (one of the most influential books of Gowery’s life) two frantic adults come into his office: Poe (Adam Chanler-Berat) and Lilac (Grace Rex). Both are pale-faced, limp and emotionally squeezed, but they demand that Gowery tell them about the summer of 1975, which was a time in their lives that was fraught with trauma so severe that they cannot remember what happened to them. For Poe and Lilac it is a “time transfixed.” Their lives cannot resume unless the darkness of the past is lightened with the truth from Gowery’s lips.
The irony is that the summer of 1975 for Gowery also is a “time transfixed,” a disaster which he never worked through, but just circumvented by emotional suppression. If he helps the desperate Poe and Lilac, he must dredge up the nightmares which contributed to the death of his playwriting career and forced him on the unenlightened, yet lucrative path of “convincing people to sell things they love to buy things they don’t want.”
Running from himself and Poe and Lilac by escaping into the bathroom, Gowery considers. Out of his memory comes Guare’s inimitable, wacky flashback of Gowery’s summer with Poe, Lilac and the others. By the time he decides to give Poe and Lilac what they want, he emerges from the bathroom a more contented man. He has reconciled himself and brought us along as his understanding and empathetic companions. Now, he is able to initiate Poe’s and Lilac’s understanding of their past and move them off the immobilizing still point of trauma.
I enjoyed Guare’s writerly memes and ironic quips, and his use of Borges’ quotes for humor, plot development and revelation of themes. The production is a farcical, mystery romp, but it is also a profound look at reconciliation, second chances, working through trauma and evolving beyond pain if one has the determination to do so.
The two tiered staging as a focal point of elucidation is excellent and the Magritte room, clever. I loved how German Jaramillo’s blind Borges (a truthful metaphor of his inner sight) escorts the chugging locomotive (an element reflective of Borges’ magical realism) off stage as Mundie’s journey moves toward closure of one labyrinth and heads off to lead Gowery into another. The final labyrinth which restores us to the present and Gowery’s lovely reconciliation with Poe and Lilac.
From acting to direction to artistic design (see above and Howell Binkley-Lighting) (Mark Bennett-Original Music and Sound) Nantucket Sleigh Ride delivers. Thanks to the balanced and vibrant work of the ensemble, Larroquette’s wry likeableness, Adam Chanler-Berat and Grace Rex’s humorous transformation from kids to thirty-somethings and the wonderful, stylized German Jaramillo as Borges, this is a must-see for its grace, humor, depth and ironies all of which should not be underestimated.