Even though it overstays its welcome, the new play “Nice Fish,” set on a frozen lake, is a wild ride into the depths of existence.
Erik is a serious hard-water angler, tricked out with his auger, sonar, underwater camera and tip-up so he can gain advantage over the lunkers lurking in deep, cold water.
Erik’s buddy Ron is an overgrown kid, out for a lark in his snow pants and orange fleece hood. He goofs around with snowmen, plays with his bologna sandwich and accidentally drops his cellphone into the fish hole — in short, one of those guys you want to strangle.
These friends — seeking diversion on a frozen lake — share a certain obsessive gene. They are puzzled by life, constantly mulling existence, the significance of small events and coincidence. How can some people just wander through the world as though they’re asleep? Isn’t there something beneath the metaphoric ice of this life? Are we, in fact, the fish of the greater cosmos, waiting to be hooked by something greater than ourselves?
Writers Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins toss out those ideas — and many others — in their unruly play “Nice Fish,” which had its world premiere Friday at the Guthrie Theater. Rylance and Jim Lichtscheidl play Ron and Erik respectively, guys hoping for one last “big one” as the end of the ice-fishing season nears.
In the gloaming of a gray day, they encounter these things: a thick-brained DNR officer (stolid and stern Bob Davis) who recites fishing regulations; a Norse goddess (flirtatious, willowy Emily Swallow) who steps out of a sauna with alluring grace; her atavistic boyfriend Wayne (wild and hulking Chris Carlson), who arrives on a vintage snowmobile and prefers to fish with dynamite and a spear.
There’s a whiff of “The Red Green Show” here, some “Waiting for Godot,” a little “Seinfeld,” “Moby Dick” and animistic philosophy. In essence, Rylance and Jenkins have thrown the entire world into a stew unmediated by the forces of dramatic tension.
If you prefer your drama tidy and ordered by crisp dialogue, this odd farrago will test your patience — perhaps even drive you crazy. “Nice Fish” is too long and undisciplined, overreaching its scope and ambitions. Certain scenes scream to be trimmed. And just when the piece should head for the homestretch with its eye on the finish line, it loses focus and drifts aimlessly — as if Rylance and Jenkins just couldn’t let go.
One could argue that this sprawling mayhem is, in effect, the message. Ron, the wild innocent, eagerly plunges into each weird turn and potential catastrophe. Erik wraps himself in technology and at the first sign of trouble wants to run home.
Rylance has explored this mix of Norse myth and the collective unconscious before — particularly with “Peer Gynt” at the Guthrie in 2008. That show, too, drove some patrons to distraction. But there is much joy, too, to be had in this magnificent mess. We feel part of something that is being created, in fits and starts, out of chaos. The play’s wildness courts disaster at the same time it amazes with its bravery. How infrequently we get to see such raw, present and alive work at the Guthrie.
“Nice Fish” howls like a snowstorm — in April. We can either shut ourselves away from it, or run outside for one last winter romp.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299