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Chasing the New White Whale

An earnest, ambitious and theatrical take on drug addiction in the contemporary U.S. with “Moby Dick” motifs as its set in a New England fishing village.

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Michael Gorman, Alan Barnes Netherton and Khari Constantine in a scene from “Chasing the New White Whale” (Photo credit: Carlos Cardona)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

Visually impressive due to the inventive work of scenic designer Donald Eastman and director Arthur Adair’s fine staging, Chasing the New White Whale is playwright Michael Gorman’s muddled attempt at an epic drama of drug addiction in the contemporary United States. Herman Melville’s classic 1851 novel Moby-Dick is metaphorically employed and heavy-handed references and motifs abound.

Instead of developing and relying on his viable scenario, Mr. Gorman utilizes two ineffective devices that distract from the plot. Like Father Mapple up in the pulpit, “a modern prophet,” a chaplain (flatly played by Gorman dressed in black) appears on a high platform, periodically intoning solemn commentary and didactic bromides drawn from the book and the likes of Henry David Thoreau and Tony Kushner. Equally as tediously intrusive is an ancient fisherman, another prophet in the guises of a bartender and storyteller who pops in and out of the events. Gorman’s dialogue ranges from grandiose to poignantly simple while striving for pseudo-importance.

In the mythological New England fishing town of Haversport, we meet three children (played by adults) playing in a boat and then follow them into maturity. Robby Foerster takes up over his deceased alcoholic father’s fishing boat, The Northern Star. One of his stalwart girlfriend Therese’s jobs is being his bookkeeper. His best friend, the affable Johnny, becomes his first mate. A subplot involves Robby’s employee, the young novice fisherman Steven and his aspiring artist girlfriend Michele. Though injured in a boating incident, Robby later hobbles around on a cane while continuing his quest to catch a 400 lb. halibut. Linking the plot turns to Melville gets to be too much.

The Cast of “Chasing the New White Whale” (Photo credit: Carlos Cardona)

Integral to the narrative is the wily Ray, he’s the owner of a seafood restaurant and bar who is also a heroin dealer. His engaging Robby for a drug run enabled him to buy his father’s boat at auction and there’s tension about continuing this arrangement. Several characters get caught up in addiction and it all tragically plays out during a brief but turgid 65 minutes.

Three sides of the theater are used for audience seating facing the sunken playing area. From an assemblage of wooden platforms, ladders and ramps Mr. Eastman conjures up a striking nautical environment. Wooden sections become a dock and the boat is wheeled around on a metal frame by actors clad in black hoodies and black sunglasses. The stage’s back wall has a billowing white curtain where projection designer Donna Daly’s lovely seafaring imagery is shown. Chris Akerlind’s adept lighting design is ominously dim. The ensemble is appropriately clothed in present day street clothes and tweaked accessories by costume designer Sarah Boyden.

Tableaus, stage pictures, and stylized movement are expertly executed by Mr. Adair and give the production a visually polished presentation. Composers Sammo & Billy Flynn perform their Celtic-themed score onstage to great effect.

Alan Barnes Netherton (standing), Meredith Nicholaev and Chris Cornwell in a scene from “Chasing the New White Whale” (Photo credit: Carlos Cardona)

The bearded and soulful Alan Barnes Netherton is quite moving as Robbie. Meridith Nicholaev manages to bring freshness to the perennial supportive girlfriend part with her winning portrayal of Therese. Chris Cornwell’s Johnny is a pleasant turn. Khari Constantine as Steven and Victoria A. Villier as Michele are both charming and convey their characters’ romantic attachment.

Delightfully irreverent, coldly pragmatic and animated is Mark Daly who makes the most of the role of Ray, the conniving drug dealer. Mr. Daly’s salty archetypical presence is right out of a Sam Peckinpah film and is a major highlight of the show.

Jovial Jim Reitz is the loquacious ancient fisherman and Trey Adams, Rae Nelson, Sabrina Fara Tosti, and Sarah Boyden all skillfully appear as a host of phantoms, ghosts and townspeople.

Chasing the New White Whale’s worthy intentions are sidetracked by its clunky premise which has the issue of drugs depicted without much impact. 

Chasing the New White Whale (through December 9, 2018)

The 40 Hour Club

La MaMa

Ellen Stewart Theatre, Sceond Floor, 66 East 4th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit lamama.org

Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission

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Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (571 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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