The folksy prose poetry of Louis Jenkins makes up the dialogues and monologues that constitute this peculiar, hilarious, and gently poignant play about two men on a short weekend ice-fishing trip. Most scenes are short, the quick banter or petit insights punctuated by darkness, abruptly and effectively final like the last frame of a comic strip—or the bottom of a page. The Midwestern ethos that informs these sketches is reminiscent of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion (at one point, the characters even sing a song), especially his signature monologue, “The News from Lake Wobegon.” Mark Rylance, who adapted the play alongside Jenkins, wonders and then playacts what a snowman might say; he rocks out with a mounted fish singing the surreal song from that McDonald’s commercial, “Gimme back that filet-o-fish,” laughing and dancing until the “what if it were you hanging up on this wall?” section, at which point he becomes risibly reflective.
That scene sums up the show: both oddly moving and knee-slapping, thanks especially to Rylance’s complex delivery. The British actor’s recent Oscar nomination for Bridge of Spies might have made a few movie fans ask, “Who?” But theatergoers know him well. He’s won three Tonys since his Broadway debut in 2008, the first two of which he notoriously accepted, without warning, by reciting Jenkins’s poetry. The text of the 2008 speech, a poem called “The Back Country,” appears in Nice Fish (also the name of a Jenkins collection from which much of the play was drawn), as does the persona Rylance adopted to perform it. He employs a slurry Midwestern accent and opens his eyes wide and deadens them to create a kind of slow-witted, blithe, and persistent confusion. In one of the first scenes, he drops his phone into an ice-fishing hole. Then his sunglasses. It’s an adept bit of slapstick, and a taste of the physical and verbal comedy to come.
Rylance’s sparring partner is played by Jim Lichtscheidl, a gruff straight man and the perfect counterpoint to his costar’s goofy charm. Kayli Carter, as a neighbor, and Jenkins, as her gruffer-than-Lichtscheidl grandfather, show up for a spell; their voices and movements are perfectly calibrated, creating precise harmonies with the rest of the cast, like a first-rate chamber orchestra. (Bob Davis is also terrific, in a small appearance as an officer from Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources, easily rattling off esoteric bureaucratic regulations with the familiarity of the names of family members.) There are no false mannerisms or inflections, even though the actors speak over-stylized dialogue with unnatural fluency.
It’s all in the service of no story. The stage is an icy expanse—or rather, a crinkly plastic sheet over a white-painted stage, with tiny trees at the rear to accentuate the illusion of perspective and a quarter-scale shack in the middle ground—and the narrative and the lives of its characters are just as flat as this Midwestern freeze. They’re as plain as the Plains. Below the chucklesome chatting is a hint of American resignation, toward age or youth, toward change or constancy, toward death or life. There’s a futility to hoping, to trying, the play suggests, because success is as empty as failure. The title refers to how you could catch the greatest fish of your life, and what do you get except for a few people you don’t really care about saying, “Hey. Nice fish”?
Louis Jenkins’s Nice Fish runs through March 27 at St. Ann’s Warehouse.