Almost all that I can tell you right now about the stage design for John Guare’s Nantucket Sleigh Ride is that there are doors. The other day, during a tech rehearsal of the play, the production’s set designer, David Gallo, explained those doors’ origin. “At my first meeting with Jerry” – Jerry being the director Jerry Zaks --  “he brought me a photograph of Nantucket doors. I’d seen other images like that – the Doors of Dublin, the Doors of San Francisco. These are souvenir posters, and in this case were a tool for where we were headed.”

“Endlessly repeating doors is a very magic realist image,” Gallo said, “and magic realism is very key to this play.” During the research part of this assignment, Gallo and his partner, Viveca Gardiner, assembled images taken from the work of writers and painters sometimes associated with that artistic tendency. “Borges is a character in the play,” Gallo said, “and his idea of the library figured in to the design.” 

Gallo also drew inspiration from the work of 20th-century American artists who are sometimes associated with magic realism. “My favorite painters for stage designs are Paul Cadmus and George Tooker. I used Tooker as an inspiration for A New Brain” – the 1998 Finn/Lapine musical that, like Nantucket Sleigh Ride, was done at LCT’s Mitzi E. Newhouse space. “Tooker,” Gallo went on, “is used more as an illustrator than as an artist because everything he painted was so goddamn clear. As a designer, I try not to obscure anything. I think Tooker was the same way.”

The Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte is mentioned in Nantucket Sleigh Ride, and Gallo also included Magritte imagery in his research. “A Magritte sky has become almost a scenic cliché,” Gallo said, “but as aspect of it seemed essential here. I try to avoid obvious choices but sometimes obvious choices are good.” Also essential: crossword puzzles. “A crossword-puzzle clue is mentioned in the very first line of the play. Thinking about the shape of a crossword helped to visualize the dividing of the play into squares and into compartmentalizing the scenes.”

Nantucket Sleigh Ride also contains aspects of a memory play, and so how one designs a memory play entered into Gallo’s design process. “I’m a lifelong student of Jo Mielziner’s design for the original production of Death of a Salesman. I’m obsessed with that design because it’s the ultimate memory-play design. But it’s the exact opposite of Nantucket. Mielziner’s design is about the haziness of memory, because Willie Loman’s brain is decaying. In Guare’s play, the main character’s brain is crystal-clear.” 

How did Gallo, a Tony winner for The Drowsy Chaperone and the designer of evocative sets for several Broadway productions of August Wilson’s plays, incorporate Nantucket’s Nantucket setting? Apart from the doors, that is? “I didn’t have to go as overboard as usual with researching visual aspects of this,” Gallo replied. “Partly because Jerry has been working on the development of John’s play for seven years, so he came to our discussions with an amount of input that was super-duper helpful. I was able to filter the visual information down more than I normally would in my design process.” 

Gallo had an instinctive feel for Nantucket because, while a New Yorker, he is familiar with New England, especially its coastal areas. “I do technical diving,” he said, “and I’ve spent a lot of time in shipwrecks all over New England. And I’m obsessed with nautical stuff. I recently directed this huge thing at Madison Square Garden for the band Phish” – Gallo has directed many of the group’s shows – “and it had a multi-mast sail bigger than one on an actual ship.” 

Gallo dreams of directing and designing a production of that most epic of nautical works: Moby Dick. “I became a set designer in part because of a production of it my mom took me to when I was a kid. It was in a basement. We sat on little benches. There were around 50 seats. The show was done with just a simple set of chairs and tables. There was nothing remarkable about the staging, but because I’d never seen something like that I was thrilled.”

For now, however, Gallo is focused on watching his design for Nantucket Sleigh Ride come to life. “Because it tapped into many of my interests, the work on the show has been very satisfying. And it’s good to be back in the Newhouse after all these years.”

 

Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com