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Why Nantucket Sleigh Ride is the Tony winner's most personal play yet
In John Guare's Nantucket Sleigh Ride, a former playwright-turned-financier (Tony winner John Larroquette) is jolted back in time to relive life-changing events that occurred on the titular Cape Cod isle in 1975. In some ways, working on this Lincoln Center Theater mounting has served as a trip to the past for Guare himself. The show marks his third collaboration with director Jerry Zaks, who won two of his four Tony Awards for helming Guare shows at Lincoln Center: The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation. Fans of those plays will recognize hallmarks of Guare's distinctive style in Nantucket Sleigh Ride, including a quick-paced narrative that jump-cuts through time, flights of surreal fancy grounded to finely observed factual details and a humorous take on well-known cultural touch points. But it's the plethora of autobiographical tidbits strewn throughout the play that makes it feel like his most personal work to date.
The title is a 19th-century expression that describes the dangerous life-or-death ride whalers went on when pulled through the ocean by their harpooned prey -- a metaphor for the protagonist's bumpy trip down memory lane. Guare's been working on the play for a better part of a decade. In fact, an early iteration called Are You There, McPhee? was staged back in 2012 at New Jersey's McCarter Theatre. "It's a story that I've wanted to tell for a long time," says the 81-year-old dramatist. "It took that production for me to find the center of the play, for which I am eternally grateful. The main problem was that I was a character in the play. How do you write yourself? Who am I? I was able to figure that out thanks to Borges."
Guare is talking about the late Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, who shows up as a character in Nantucket Sleigh Ride. His celebrated collection of stories and essays, Labyrinths, is passed on like a talisman in the play. "Borges is an author I came to know when I was young," Guare explains. "He was challenging because all his pieces were so brief; it took me a long time to realize his extraordinary wit and profundity. He's one of those writers that take possession of your mind -- he shows possibilities and alternate variations. And I'm always looking for the possibilities in a moment." Ultimately, Borges serves as a kind of guide through the time-hopping narrative.
Nantucket holds great meaning for Guare, just as it does for Larroquette's character in the play. "I was told that it was a place that you go to change your life, and it did change mine," Guare says. He first visited the island in 1962 when he was still studying at the Yale School of Drama. "I looked on a map and it was as far as I could get on $35," he recalls, adding that he spent some time there taking care of a local family's home. "It was a long ferry ride -- 30 miles out at sea – a real far away island, a wonderful place."
Eleven years later, after evolving from Off-Off Broadway star to Tony winner for his book and lyrics for the musical Two Gentlemen of Verona, Nantucket changed his trajectory. "My life was sort of at a standstill in 1973," Guare says. "I didn't know where to go from there, when out of the blue I got an offer to start a theatre on the island. It was like going back to my roots, those early Off-Off-Broadway days, just putting on plays. And it was there that I met my wife." Fittingly, Nantucket Sleigh Ride includes a scene which recalls the moment when he first set eyes on Adele Chatfield-Taylor, his spouse of 45 years.
The Nantucket Stage Company only lasted one season, but he still remembers it fondly. Interestingly, Guare hasn't been back since. "The dustiness of the island has been lost," he says. "It has become a playground for hedge fund people. But the way it used to be still exists in my head."
The isle of his youth is the setting for Nantucket Sleigh Ride, which interweaves a smorgasbord of elements: the cult around Jaws, a Roman Polanski remake of a Hitchcock classic, writing for Walt Disney, an alleged child porn ring and a possibly murderous father. Although Guare admits a real-life incident initiated the play, he won't go into details. However, he's happy to talk about some of the show's more fanciful aspects that are based on reality, like the reference to "Little Billy" Rhodes, who played the Munchkin barrister in The Wizard of Oz. In real life he was Guare's mother's foster brother. And the set's surreal, Magritte-inspired house is based on a room Guare once saw with a locomotive coming out of the fireplace. "It was stunning," he recalls. "The minute I walked in I said to myself, 'This is a setting.'"
Although Guare's onstage alter ego embarked on a non-artistic career after his Nantucket experience, the playwright insists he never even considered such a thing. "If I wasn't a playwright, I would have found another job in the theatre," he says. "My father worked on Wall Street and hated it. He said, 'Never end up like me. Just make sure that you do what you love, as long as it's legal.' And from a very early age, I knew that the theatre was where I wanted to be."
Growing up in Queens, New York, Guare started writing plays at age 11 and staged them in a neighbor's garage. Hanging alongside other mementos in his study is a framed copy of a story Newsday did on his adolescent theatrical endeavors, decades before he made it to Broadway.
When asked if writing Nantucket Sleigh Ride has helped him discover who he is, Guare deadpans, "Oh, absolutely! I'm completely wise now. I live on a mountaintop and people come to me and ask me how I've done it." Then he laughs. "No! All our lives we are caught in forces that are beyond our control. We are all on a Nantucket sleigh ride. And I think that's one of the things that art is there for: To make us aware of our role and not become invisible passengers in our lives."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Nantucket Sleigh Ride. Go here to browse our current offers.
Gerard Raymond is an arts journalist based in New York City.
John Larroquette in Nantucket Sleigh Ride. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.