“Chasing the New White Whale” scores points for sheer gumption.
The Forty Hour Club production, which just opened at La MaMa, borrows elements from “Moby-Dick” to depict the ravages brought on by the opioid epidemic, particularly on the New England working class. There are boats moving about on wheeled scaffolds as well as projections onto a sail-like screen; a two-person band supplies an omnipresent live score. The story features sermons and ghosts, drug-running and tempests at sea, not to mention high-stakes fishing.
It would be exciting to report that the playwright Mike Gorman found a way to tie all these strands together — if only because modern theater does not write enough about either blue-collar characters or drug addiction — but “Chasing the New White Whale” is a muddle of ideas in search of coherence and falls short of its ambition.
The show declares a parallel between Melville’s creations and the plague of drugs. “What was Ahab, but an addict, really, and what was the white whale, but an allusion to opium, and heroin, its contemporary scourge?” asks a Quaker chaplain (Mr. Gorman), who pops up at regular intervals to deliver flowery homilies.
In between these sermons we follow the story of Robby (Alan Barnes Netherton), a fisherman who’s doomed by the threat of drug addiction and his obsession with fishing. Since he was a kid, you see, Robby has been driven by the one that got away. “I’ve got one more trip to catch a big halibut and then I’m out,” he says at one point.
Halibut pales next to a giant white whale in the metaphor department, but fine, let’s go with it. Robby gets in cahoots with a smuggler, Ray (Mark Daly), to raise money for a boat, all the while exhibiting stunning naïveté as to what’s in the hold: “You said it was going to be guns,” he tells Ray. Oh, guns, so much better.
Meanwhile, young Steven (Khari Constantine) represents a new generation’s evergreen idealism as he wants to make a go at resurrecting old-fashioned practices, like hook fishing.
There is the germ of an interesting tale lurking in there, if only because the author’s anger is palpable. Mr. Gorman, the recently appointed playwright in residence at La MaMa, lost a brother who was a fisherman to a heroin overdose, and denouncing the blight of opioids has become his artistic quest.
But obsessions are by nature difficult to tame and the show is all over the place. The parallels between addiction and “Moby-Dick” do not sync up, and neither do the realistic and symbolic scenes. The actors moving silently among the main cast are meant to evoke both Ahab’s ghostly crew and modern addicts, for instance, but the device is mystifying rather than effective. The script also takes so many narrative shortcuts that the lead characters are reduced to brush strokes. Mr. Gorman tries to pack too much in 75 minutes, and so does the director Arthur Adair, who overcompensates with bells and whistles — the occasional live video feed à la Ivo van Hove is awkward and expendable, for instance. The show is best at its most direct, and a storm heaving Robby’s boat about is haunting in its simplicity. The core of the story is there: a man, tossed about by life and elements, trying to survive.