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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Are You There, McPhee?

I do have a story. It happened to me many years ago. For years I didn't understand what had happened to me so it wasn't a story yet – just a weird inexplicable event in my life. — Mundie
Are You There McPhee
Hope Springer, John Behlmann, Paul Gross, Alicia Goranson and Matthew Kuenne
(Photo: Michal Daniel )
During his long and lauded career, John Guare has demonstrated an unquestionably distinctive talent for writing challenging yet accessible dramatic literature. Except for Six Degrees of Separation he has shown a preference for telling stories that conspicuously take detours from reality. From the chaotic antics of a film maker and his entourage on an iceberg off the coast of Norway in the surreal Marco Polo Sings a Solo to the most recently produced Baroque dalliances of a wealthy Mulatto in 1801 New Orleans in A Free Man of Color, Guare has never compromised his essential dislike for naturalism by taking his own path toward the continental tendency favoring magical realism.

But nothing Guare has written is likely to have prepared you for the dementedly off-the-wall doings and the dizzyingly out-of-control characters that we are confronted with in Are You There, McPhee? certainly Guare's most free-wheeling and comically absurdist latest play, as originally commissioned by the McCarter Theater and Princeton University for its world premiere.

Unfortunately, director Sam Buntrock hasn't done all that he needed to do, to bring a cohesive shape to what is now an interestingly conceived, but all too recklessly structured dark farce. Consequently you may think you need a road map, a guide, and possibly an analyst in the seat next to you to help you keep up with it once you get past the first admittedly rollicking hour. This may be Guare's most purposefully convoluted and preposterously contrived story yet.

Although buoyed with puppetry, some of it fanciful and some of it fearsome, the play carries an overabundance of digressive allusions to old movies and classic children's literature. At two hours and 45 minutes, It is also egregiously long. More than a little judicious pruning is in order to keep our interest from waning as the main character proceed on his often humorous, if also self-serving journey from his present to his past and back again.

You certainly can't depend upon the formidable and frenetically driven narrative to keep you abreast, even as it is driven in full throttle by the splendid Paul Gross as Edmund Gowry (Mundie to his friends), a playwright and the play's point-of view character. When egged on to regale his friends with a story as a diversion during a cocktail party, he gets the inspiration to embroider/enhance a personal experience that may or may not be rooted in or recruited from reality. As his story becomes grounded in the decidedly demented distortions of his own memory, Mundie finds himself, as did Alice when she fell into the rabbit hole, willing to submit to the sometimes horrific, but also occasionally hilariously contrived conditions and conventions provided by his experiences in an alternate universe.

It helps that Gross, who created a well-deserved following as the neurotic artistic director of a Canadian theater company in the TV series Slings and Arrows and recently appeared on Broadway in Private Lives, is a very attractive leading man. He has the task of dominating as well as dictating the course of the play from its beginning to its end, sometimes breaking the fourth wall. He careens (no other word for it) brilliantly through a series of dream-like absurdist adventures none of which appear to conspire in his behalf but rather define him as a victimized provocateur presumably in search of a newly imagined self.

The play within the play, or story within the story, is set in Nantucket in the summer of 1975. The film Jaws is playing at the local cinema and is the talk of the island where Mundie had purchased an income-producing rental property. Notwithstanding the on-going affair he is having with his lawyer's wife now vacationing in Argentina, as well as one with an interim tart, Mundie is summoned to the island by the police who claim that the house is being used by child pornographers and is now a crime scene.

It won't be much of a plot spoiler to reveal that everyone he encounters on the island, including the detective, claims to have played a role in a local production of his last play The Structure of Stars and that a woman has either been murdered or has committed suicide in a home to which he has been invited for dinner by a strange man he met in a Nantucket bar. That man is named McPhee and he carts around an 11 lb live lobster (a puppet, of course) in a basket.

What is Mundie to do when confronted by the shenanigans of two incorrigible, drug-addled children left in the care of an incompetent au pair couple named Wendy and Peter while their irresponsible father has gone off to make a film deal with Disney? As it happens, Mundie is also in the midst of negotiations to write a screenplay for a proposed remake of the Hitchcock film Suspicion to be directed by Roman Polanski.

The play like Mundie's mind is also empowered by his memories of children's literature. The primary question it seems to pose is whether Mundie is to be forever trapped in this Never-ever land—, or will his desire to change himself be strong enough to transform his vision/version of his past and be the key to his future. Nice work if he can do it. I suspect that the play would be better served if the children who have much too much stage time, were played by puppets, making them less deplorable and potentially more delightful.

Though the other actors ably play more than one character they are mostly defined by their caricatured and cartoon-ish behavior. David Farley's impressive set includes a brick wall, some fantastical as well as conventional interiors that support the idea of two interlocking worlds. The title of the play apparently comes from a nautical term, supposedly used by sailors when they need to diffuse what they perceive as impending danger. You might just keep in mind another old expression, "Forewarned is forearmed."

Are You There, McPhee?
By John Guare
Directed by Sam Buntrock

Cast: Gideon Banner (Peter and others), John Behimann (McPhee and others), Jeremy Bobb (Andrew and others), Molly Camp (Wendy and others), Patrick Carroll (The Cop and others), Alicia Goranson (Alice and others), Paul Gross (Mundie), Matthew Kuenne (Poe), Jenn Lyon (Elsie and others), Danny Mastrogiorgio (Schyler and others), Hope Springer (Lilac), Lusia Strus (Bitsy and others).
Set and Costume Design: David Farley Lighting Design: Ken Billington
Sound Design: Jill BC DuBoff
Composer: Justin Ellington
Movement Director and puppet consultant: Lisa Shriver
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes
Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ.
(609) 258-2787
Tickets ($20 - $65)
Performances: Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at 7:30 PM; Friday and Saturday at 8 PM; and Sunday matinee at 3 PM.
From: 05/04/12
Opened: 05/11/12
Ends: 06/03/12
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 05/11/12
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