The ice may be groaning on the frozen Minnesota lake where Mark Rylance and Jim Lichtscheidl are mulling life’s mysteries, but the dialogue is solid and crisp … if sometimes as rascally as a sturgeon with zero interest in your bait and tackle.
“Nice Fish,” the latest offering in the inaugural season of the new St. Ann’s Warehouse, arrives in Brooklyn Bridge Park from an engagement at the American Repertory Theater, outside Boston. The 95-minute rumination is conceived, written and adapted by Oscar nominee Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”) and Louis Jenkins.
Jenkins, a longtime Minnesota prose poet who has frequently been a guest on “A Prairie Home Companion”—a variety show “Nice Fish” often calls to mind—can arguably be said to have come to national attention in 2008, when Rylance, accepting a Tony Award for “Boeing-Boeing,” recited one of his pieces in place of a formal acceptance speech.
That same speech (“When you are in town, wearing some kind of uniform is helpful …”), incidentally, repeats early on in “Nice Fish,” which showcases Rylance and Lichtscheidl (a vet of Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater) as Ron and Erik, 50-something high school buddies of mismatched talents who head out to this spot at the end of ice-fishing season.
While there, the duo meet a by-the-book state nature official (Bob Davis); an old-school spear fisherman, who is something of a lure-whisperer (Raye Birk, in a role that until recently was going to be played by Jenkins himself); and the spear-fisherman’s granddaughter (Kayli Carter), whose attire is inappropriate for the weather, though she is unaffected by such realities.
There are a remarkable number of quick-cut scene changes in “Nice Fish,” which ultimately is one more in a line of opportunities for Rylance to showcase his doddering good humor. By play’s end, he’s in a pink nightie, mimicking what seems to be the pronouncements theatergoers might make in a post-curtain analysis of this show—except shortly thereafter we realize he’s instead offering a critical summation of a full human lifespan (“Some of the scenery was nice …”).
Todd Rosenthal’s set design is a marvel of hyper-dramatized perspective. At the play’s start, a set of piercing lights appear upstage. The scene goes to a blackout, and then Erik and Ron are downstage, preparing to drill holes in the ice. It took a moment to realize the lights we’d just seen were the headlights of their truck, arriving at the lake.
Likewise, other features on or around the lake—a house, which for some reason has a sauna; miniature versions of some supporting characters—are imagined with the same distorted perspective. Director Claire van Kampen, a longtime Rylance collaborator clearly having her fun here, was recently in charge of “historical music arrangements” for the PBS miniseries “Wolf Hall,” in which Rylance was Thomas Cromwell.
I sometimes feel like a hooked trout when I’m in a Rylance audience. I squirm a little at the mercy of his stream-of-consciousness, before finally settling down and accepting the rhythmic cadences—falling for it hook, line and … well.
As it turns out, his work here is no fish story. Though U.K. born, the heralded performer spent part of his youth in Wisconsin, and so that’s where his Ron hails from. “Nice Fish” doesn’t have an urban sensibility that will be instantly appealing to New York theatergoers, but on the other hand, it’s nice to get out of town at this time of year, isn’t it?
“Nice Fish,” through March 27 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn Bridge Park, 45 Water St. in DUMBO. Tickets: Starting at $66. Call 718-254-8779.