May 16, 2012

The World Premiere of “Are You There, McPhee?” Opens at McCarter; With Plays Within Plays and a Wildly Absurdist Memory Journey

PLAYWRIGHT IN DISTRESS: Stranded with two abandoned children (Hope Springer, left, and Matthew Kuenne) in a strange house and a hostile environment, Mundie (Paul Gross) tries to make progress on his new screenplay in the world premiere of John Guare’s “Are You There, McPhee?” at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 3. (Photo by Michal Daniel)

At a New York City party the guests are telling stories in the opening scene of John Guare’s new play Are You There, McPhee? at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Edmund “Mundie” Gowery, a playwright, urges the group to gather round for his “horror story” of abandoned children, a dead mother, a porn ring, at least two sea monsters (11-pound lobsters) and Walt Disney. Mundie’s story, which he both narrates and re-lives, takes him from the present back to 1975, summer of “Jaws” (blockbuster movie and book), as he, at the age of 35, becomes embroiled in a tangled series of troubling, life-defining incidents — alternately absurd, horrific, and romantic — on the island of Nantucket.

In addition to the above, this two-and-three-quarter-hour surrealistic comedy includes dozens of different characters, all played by a versatile cast of 12; a slew of movie allusions and children’s literature references; repeated appearances by marionettes depicting the Argentine writer Borges, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, and Mundie himself; a diamond-stuffed lobster; a heart literally turning to gold; movie deals with Disney and Roman Polanski; a living room in the style of a Magritte painting, with a train coming out of the fireplace; literary references to Herman Melville, Samuel Beckett, Dr. Seuss, Primo Levi, and others; and frequent visitors from the past dredged up from Mundie’s creative memory.

This much plotting and literary, cinematic, artistic, and dramatic material can become daunting for audiences struggling just to keep track of what’s going on. The humor is clever, surprising and richly absurd. The distinguished cast is excellent, led by the dynamic, humorous, and appealing Paul Gross (Due South, Slings and Arrows) as Mundie. The talented Sam Buntrock (Travesties at McCarter last month and a widely acclaimed production of Sunday in the Park with George in London in 2006 and on Broadway in 2008) directs with imagination and finesse, teaming up brilliantly again with set and costume designer David Farley (Travesties, Sunday in the Park).

Present here are qualities that have established Mr. Guare (House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation) as one of the great American playwrights of the past 40 years: wildly imaginative plotting, detailed and sympathetic characterizations, hilarious comedy, striking and moving portrayals of deeply flawed men and women trying to make human connections, besieged in a forbidding environment. But Are You There, McPhee? needs an editor. Two-thirds of the current plot, fewer characters, and a running time much closer to two than three hours would suffice. The audience could catch its breath, take time to enjoy the humor rather than struggling constantly to follow the plot, and establish the kind of close ties with the main character that would draw us in to care more about his amusing, moving, sometimes ridiculous plight.

As Mundie’s story begins, the characters from his past appear and the layers of dark complexity accumulate. Lighting by Ken Billington and set shifts assist in transporting Mundie and the audience back to 1975. Mundie, who owns a Nantucket rental house he has never seen, receives an alarming phone call from the Nantucket police. They have arrested his tenants for running a child pornography ring. With Mundie’s first love interest departing for Buenos Aires with her husband, Mundie’s lawyer, and his second girlfriend demanding Mundie’s presence at a social event that evening, Mundie plans to fly to Nantucket for the day.

The literary background develops. Mundie reads Borges stories on the plane, and the famous writer appears in the form of a life-sized puppet to offer words of wisdom. Everybody else seems to be reading Jaws or going to the movie, as ominous “Jaws” sound effects complement the action here. Mundie’s Nantucket house had once been the home of a famous author of the “Elsie and Wally” books for children.

Soon after arriving in Nantucket, Mundie undergoes a police interrogation concerning his criminal tenants, and finds that everyone he meets recently acted in a local amateur production of his play, Internal Structure of Stars. They are all still furious that Mundie declined an invitation to attend a performance, but more than ready to offer dramatic samplings of their best lines.

Somehow Mundie encounters a lobster fisherman named McPhee. Some sort of alter ego for Mundie, he also had a part in the play, has a married girlfriend with the same name as Mundie’s and is also reading Borges. McPhee bestows upon him a large trash can and a cooler containing two huge lobsters.

And somehow McPhee directs Mundie to a house where Peter and Wendy are housesitting and taking care of a young boy, Poe, and girl, Lilac, and that’s where the plot really gets going, as we gradually find out details about the children’s mother, the daughter of the writer who lived in the house Mundie now owns, and the father, who directed Mundie’s play and aspires to greater achievements in Hollywood.

Mundie finds out he has a deadline to write a screenplay for Roman Polanski and looks forward to a rapid departure back to New York, but suddenly finds himself responsible for the two mischievous children who seem to have been abandoned by their parents and by Peter and Wendy.

This is just the first half, and this description barely scratches the surface. Is this Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw updated, in double time and on steroids? Much of the dialogue and action is very funny, and the excellent cast plays a colorful and entertaining array of characters: John Behlmann (McPhee), Gideon Banner (Peter), Jeremy Bobb (the lawyer), Molly Camp (Wendy), Patrick Carroll (the cop), Alicia Goranson (Mundie’s girlfriend), Matthew Kuenne and Hope Springer (the children), Jenn Lynn (daughter of the famous children’s book author), Danny Mastrogiorgio (the children’s father), and Luisa Strus (the children’s aunt) — all except for Mr. Gross’ Mundie and the children, taking on multiple additional challenging roles.

Just before intermission, after more than an hour and a half of intense exposition and plotting, Mundie looks up at the audience and tells us: “You need a break.” Despite the superb production and the wealth of great comedic and dramatic material, he’s right. Less would be more.