Intermission Talk

“Life Sucks” on a

“Nantucket Sleigh Ride”

by Tony Vellela

What do “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” and “Mamma Mia” have in common?  They both require the maximum amount of suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy what they have to offer.

Playwright John Guare [“Six Degrees of Separation,” “House of Blue Leaves,” etc], at 81, had no need to add another unique work to his resume.  Like his other notable plays and screenplays, “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” delivers on many levels, not least of which is giving its audience lots and lots to chew over.  For a start, the central character, masterfully brought to life by John Larroquette, has both the acting chops and the energy to keep things rolling along apace, rather like an Aaron  Sorkin invention, racing along like a runaway locomotive, but with the benefit of a little humor. Larroquette is a wounded, disaffected writer whose one claim to fleeting fame is having penned a moderately successful work tiled “Internal Structure of Stars.”  In the present day, at work in his office, his secretary has discovered that her boss is THE Edmund Gowery, an answer in today’s Times crossword.  This catapults the action back to 1975, when he penned his hit.  Gower, using his newly-minted income from the play, is urged to purchase a property on Nantucket, as an investment – sight unseen.

Every conceivable turn of events, which include but are not limited to news that Roman Polanski wants to adapt him to write the screenplay for a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion,” the appearance of the local police due to a discovery that his house has been the headquarters for the distribution of photos of child porn, the explosion of “Jaws” onto the national pop culture scene, two unsettlingly off-center children, an electrocuted lobster, and the return of the cryogenically preserved Walt Disney.  If some of these references ring no bells for you, fear not – my 20-year-old guest was also unfamiliar with many of them, but picked up on just enough to come away having a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

But I digress  because the plot details require it.  Playwright Gowery’s memories of that time period barely keep up with his ability to try to sort them out.  There are, at times, a hectic air about all of this, proof that an intricate plot can twist, and still keep you engaged, especially when the laughs keep coming.

“Nantucket Sleigh Ride,” at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theatre, traces some of its pleasures of its measured madness to its director, Jerry Zaks, whose credits include two of Guare’s other familiar works, “The House of Blue Leaves” and “Six Degrees of Separation.”

A few words about one of the other major contributions to the production that help keep it moving along briskly.  David Gallo’s sets and projections meld together with great skill, built around a basic design of three ‘strips’ of doors, each able to slide in and out to reveal a playing area suited to what’s needed.  It’s a perfect example of how a designer can more than boost the accessibility of a difficult play.  You’ll only find it difficult if you attempt to organize the plot points and find logic where there is little.  What there is plenty of is Guare’s true craftsmanship.  Enjoy.

Borrow from the best.  Somewhere along the early way of his career, some teacher or mentor must have ingrained this advice into the fertile brain of writer Aaron Posner.  He took that advice and enhanced it, by either reworking or reimagining the classics of many, among the most notable of which is his ‘sort of’ adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”  When it premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1899, it was not immediately popular, but grew in stature and acceptance, enjoying productions throughout the provinces.  Here, Posner harvests so many of Chekhov’s signature styles in the creation of his characters and situations, then making them somewhat more contemporary in their development.  Don’t let the title “Life Sucks” either put you off or cause you to heap scorn on the playwright for trying to lure you in with a title that sounds like one of those new plays that labor over the tribulations of so many twenty-somethings, struggling to find themselves and along the way, a route to commitment with another something.

This is not that.  Transported to an unidentified American [suggested] locale and a time period of the day, “Life Sucks” unfolds on the country estate of a retired professor, his wife, his daughter by a previous marriage, the region’s doctor and others related to them by marriage, blood or circumstance.   The drive to maintain the estate’s value and beauty, defined differently by different people, drives all the action, which happens not in actual movement, but in encounters, conversations, disagreements and resignations to what is, and likely will transgress.  Director Jeff Wise, keeping all the balls in the air and then some, benefits from the welcome vision of The Wild Project, at the Wheelhouse Company Theatre.

Chekhov’s Yelena [wife of the professor] has undergone the most radical alteration.  Posner dubs her Ella, and has given her a far more educated history, including three degrees, the absence of which in the original makes her far more problematic to deal with.  She is still the object of serious romantic fantasies by the doctor, and by professor Vanya, and neither enjoys the thrill of having his fantasies realized, except for a hot kiss she bestows on the doctor.  About now you may be thinking ‘I don’t have enough knowledge of the Chekhov classic to take all this in.’ Your thinking is wrong.

Like the best of all Chekhov works, this adaptation by Posner retains the feature that has made Chekhov the revered master he still is – a rich, textured attention to the interplay among people who are from each other, near each other, at odds with each other, and subject to the entire range of every human emotion and passion.  These days, we’re lucky to get in new plays a tenth of that.


When an actor takes on the job of portraying a real person – living or dead – physical resemblance can enhance the performance.   Now comes word that the Manhattan Theatre Club will present  next season the world premiere of “Bella Bella,” a new solo show written by, and starring Harvey Fierstein.  And the first person to find this to be a smashing idea, I believe, would be Bella herself, because she had a great sense of humor.  She once told me how she found it funny that a reporter from another country [forgot which one] asked her, based on her first name, whether she was Spanish or Italian . . .  the Stage Directors and Choreographers  not-for-pofit  foundation will be accepting applications through April 22 for their 2019-2020 Observationship Program.  This is a unique project where early – to mid-career directors and choreographers can observe master directors and choreographers on Broadway, Off-Broadway and at leading American regional theatres, from first rehearsal through opening night.  Those chosen will receive a weekly stipend plus travel costs.  All questions can be answered at . . . more than 100 episodes of interviews with theatre professionals from around the world, conducted by playwright George Sapio, are available at . . . if you weren’t around in 1992, when the new-at-the-time musical “Crazy For You” opened, [book by Ken Ludwig, music and lyrics from the various shows of the Gershwins], and shook up the Broadway universe by re-introducing great choreography onto the Great White Way, you’ll be pleased to hear that a revival is planned for next season, directed and choreographed by its original choreographer, Susan Stroman.  You may also recall that, during the preceding years, big musicals were mostly imports from the Brits, which were pretty much devoid of dancing.  Stroman told me later that there were so few trained dancers auditioning for the show that they had to make an extra effort to find qualified candidates to execute her work .

On Book

If you are really keen on learning about Anton Chekhov and his plays, one of the best sources is ‘The Complete Plays – Anton Chekhov,’ translated by Laurence Senelick, from W.W. Norton and Company . . .  and lest you think that Mr. Senelick is a one-trick pony, he also lent his commendable skills as an editor to “The American Stage – Writing on Theatre from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner,” from The Library of America.”  In his Foreword to this collection, John Lithgow writes “Open up this book to any page and experience the glories of two centuries of American theatre.”


TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions,” winner of the Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival, received three productions in NYC and is published by Playscripts.  His play “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge.  His musical “Mister,” written for Anthony Rapp, featured a score by Misha Piatigorsky. He has covered the performing arts in numerous publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, Rolling Stone, Dramatics, and Parade, and other work of his have appeared in The Whole Earth Catalog, Games Magazine and other outlets.  He has taught theatre-related courses at HB Studio, the 92nd St. Y, Columbia University Teachers College and other institutions around the country.


CARMEL CAR AND LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company Intermission Talk.  Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at, the Carmel App, and at 212 – 666 – 6666.



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