What Mr. Guare appears to be after is a dramaturgy that’s absurdist not for its personal sake however as a type of last-ditch naturalism, replicating the absurdity of precise life with all its serendipities, hyperlinks, potholes and misprisions. He is certainly one of our few main dramatists who dares to make performs from the sorts of anecdotes about which we are saying at cocktail events: “If this were a play, you’d never believe it.”
But if Mr. Guare’s earlier excursions within the anecdotal type made you are feeling like visitors at simply such a celebration, “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” (like “A Free Man of Color” in 2010) makes you are feeling such as you’re stranded at one, in a nook with a drunk. Despite some heavy pruning and reshaping because it was first produced (below the title “Are You There, McPhee?”) on the McCarter Theater in 2012, it stays, in Jerry Zaks’s zippy, overbright staging for Lincoln Center Theater, each hermitic and airtight: obscure and airless.
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That’s not a great environment for audiences — or actors — to thrive in. Mr. Larroquette has the right combination of swagger and self-doubt but spends most of the play nursing the harried affect of someone running for a bus that keeps shutting its doors every time he catches up. The rest of the cast, which includes several experienced farceurs and shape-shifters, is forced into more or less impossible contortions of whimsy, a job for which only Douglas Sills (as a shrink, the children’s father and Disney) seems factory-equipped.
Still, you may get a shiver of the dark anxiety hiding in the writing as a ghost hides in a child’s crowded closet: Without other people to confirm your identity, you have none. Nor is that an anxiety that, for a playwright, gets better with age. Mr. Guare is 81, and while “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” is hardly valedictory, it does betray doubts about ongoing fecundity.
“Lightning struck me once,” Gowery says with an equanimity the play proceeds to topple. “That’s once more than it strikes most people.” Another character helpfully points out that Verdi’s “Otello” and “Falstaff” were written when the composer was nearing 90 — which, perhaps deliberately, is at least a decade off.
Though I find his plays fresher when he writes for female protagonists instead of male ones — the women here are basically tchotchkes — Mr. Guare need not have worried about the friskiness of his imagination or the seaworthiness of his craft. They’re fine.
“Nantucket Sleigh Ride,” it seems to me, is simply a story that didn’t want to be caught. Even the title seems to know it: It’s a local term for what happens when a whaler harpoons a whale. After hours or days of wild exertion, one or the other winds up dead.
Or sometimes the audience does.
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