All Robbie ever wanted was to be a fisherman. Fishing seems to be all anyone ever talks about in the coastal New England town where he’s lived his entire life — the accents, like something out of “Manchester by the Sea,” signal Massachusetts — but the industry can’t provide a decent living like it used to, and its transformation into a mass-market commercial industry is pushing people out.
Robbie (Alan Barnes Netherton), the protagonist of Michael Gorman’s new play, “Chasing the New White Whale,” directed by Arthur Adair and now playing at La MaMa, is young, broke and on his own. To get the money he needs to buy back the boat that once belonged to his alcoholic father, he strikes a deal with Ray (Mark Daly), a local drug smuggler.
Working to deliver heroin for Ray, Robbie quickly becomes addicted, and his new problem, along with his stubbornness and refusal to reach out to others, quickly closes him off from his friends.
As this happens, a man in a 19th-century ship captain’s uniform, played by Gorman and credited in the program as “The Chaplain,” guides us through the action. Aided by his first mate Elijah (Jim Reitz), they form a sort of Greek chorus, standing on raised platforms at either side of the stage, monologuing about the characters and their situations. With a mixture of period language and contemporary references, they speak directly to the audience, addressing them as “shipmates.”
Their editorializing feels like an unnecessary extra element, stopping the plot dead each time the Chaplain and Elijah interject. The framing device makes explicit what was perhaps better left as subtext hinted at by the title — the play metaphorically incorporates elements from Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” the classic novel of whaling, obsession and its deadly consequences.
Robbie is injured when his boat, The Northern Star, sinks in a storm. Walking with a cane from then on, it’s clear that he’s the play’s Ahab.
But the metaphor is muddled, missing more often than it hits. The titular “white whale,” the obsession that Robbie grapples with as Ahab did with Moby Dick, seems to sometimes be fishing itself, sometimes the baggies of powdery heroin that Ray totes around in a cooler, sometimes something more amorphous — happiness? Wholeness? It’s difficult to say.
It isn’t quite clear until the play’s close and the Chaplain’s final monologue that the play isn’t so much an elegy for life on its last legs (for a time when “working-class” wasn’t synonymous with “poverty”), so much as a plea to come together, to try our best to understand one another and lend a hand where we can.
Trying to draw together disparate threads that weave through the play, the Chaplain grieves the devastating effect that not only heroin but also the soul-killing large-scale commercial fishing, has had on this community. In attempting to cover so much ground so quickly, Gorman doesn’t do any of his subjects justice.
“Chasing the New White Whale” is now running at La MaMa at the Ellen Stewart Theatre at 66 E. Fourth St, through Dec. 9.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 26 print edition. Email Alex Cullina at [email protected]