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THEATRE REVIEW: ‘Chasing the New White Whale’ at La MaMa uses ‘Moby Dick’ as a metaphor for opioid addiction

The playwright wrote the play in response to the heroin overdose of his brother, who was a fisherman out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, capital of the 19th century’s booming whaling industry.

In “Chasing the New White Whale,” seen recently at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York City, the new whale is drug addiction and the white whale is Moby Dick. Author Michael Gorman’s ambitious and confusing 75-minute drama takes place in a New England fishing city. The play’s literary anchor, so to speak, is Herman Melville’s sweeping epic about Captain Ahab’s obsession in hunting down the white whale. Gorman wrote the play, which is the culmination of a multimedia campaign to fight drug addiction, in response to the heroin overdose of his brother, who was a fisherman out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, capital of the 19thcentury’s booming whaling industry.

As a New Bedford native, I grew up surrounded by whaling history and, in college summers, worked unloading fishing boats, so I was eager to see this production. Gorman himself takes the role of a Quaker chaplain, quoting from Melville (with a sidebar to Thoreau), and commenting, a la the Stage Manager from “Our Town,” on the story of fisherman Robby Forrester—from Robby’s youthful fishing expeditions for a “great halibut” with childhood friends, to his adult years and the loss of his boat and his doomed reclamation of his business by operating a low-life buddy’s fishing boat to smuggle drugs. There’s a subplot about a younger fisherman who wants to revive commercial online hook fishing for the likes of halibut, but he gets hooked on drugs instead and is chastised by an artist girlfriend. An old seafaring buzzard named Isiah wanders in and out, supplementing the chaplain’s commentary; and there’s a quartet, costumed in 19th-century garb, inspired from Captain Ahab’s stowaway crew, Fedallah and the Phantoms, which meander in and out, too, haunting Robby’s tale.

Most of the stage movement achieved by director Arthur Adair comes from boats that get wheeled on and off the playing area. The actors take on their parts earnestly. Alan Barnes Netherton, who plays Robby, does a lot of heavy lifting with the script and takes a crack at a coastal Massachusetts accent. A two-piece band plays what sounds like lounge music but, given Gorman’s attention to historical detail, I’m puzzled why whaling ballads weren’t used. The heart of “Chasing the New White Whale” is in the right place but, with so many disjointed pieces, the real drama in Robby’s plight is lost at sea.

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