Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Are You There, McPhee?
World Premiere of John Guare Play

Also see Bob's review of The Hound of the Baskervilles

Paul Gross, Hope Springer, Molly Camp, Matthew Kuenne, Gideon Banner and John Behlmann
With its underlying concern anent the difficulty of learning to be a mature, well functioning adult buried under an excess of whimsical plotting, characters difficult to keep straight, and discursive dialogue, John Guare's Are You There, McPhee? is the very definition of a shaggy dog tale. Clocking in at an excessive two hours and forty-five minutes in its premiere production at Princeton's McCarter (Berlind) Theatre and replete with bursts of brightly amusing dialogue, it seems possible that, with a considerable amount of streamlining and tightening, there might be a viable play buried within this sprawling behemoth.

The tale herein is narrated to us by veteran playwright Edmund Gowery (who is addressed as "Mundie" by one and all). "It was a party. They were telling stories," Mundie tells us before stepping into the party where he is being dragooned into telling a story himself. His story, he tells the party set, is "based on a weird inexplicable event in my life" that occurred "many moons ago" (1975) in Nantucket, and involves abandoned children, a dead mother, a pornography ring, "at least" two sea monsters, and Walt Disney.

As Mundie tells of buying a house in Nantucket as a safe investment for money that he had acquired from the movie sale of his play that had been a small Off-Broadway success, the people who are in Mundie's story pop onto the set of the party (basically a brick building wall) and enact their roles in his story occupying the same space as the partygoers. Within a few minutes, Mundie announces that he is 35 years old, and he steps into his story. The segue to 1975 will shortly become complete.

It is the summer when Jaws dominated our motion picture screens and consciousness. Rapidly, Mundie relates a plethora of information about his career, lawyer, psychoanalyst, and affairs with his lawyer's wife and a back-up. Simultaneously, and this seems important thematically, we learn that Elsie and Wally, the protagonists of a beloved children's book who lost their parents in a shipwreck (every person who saves them turns into a monster whom they must flee), were written by Clarence Spooner in Mundie's Nantucket house.

A year after buying the house, Mundie receives a call from the Nantucket police, who tell him that his tenants are running "a mail order child porno ring" out of his house. Mundie goes to Nantucket where he is grilled by a cop who hates him. Why? Because Mundie declined an earlier telephone invitation from the heartbroken Elsie Spooner to come to Nantucket to see a community theatre production of his play in which Elsie, her husband Schuyler, and the cop all appeared. Everyone whom Mundie will meet was associated with that production and is angry at him.

Mundie decides to go to his Nantucket house. A locomotive comes out from the fireplace and there are any number of such oddities of design installed by Spooner in homage to the art of Magritte. His lawyer, Andy, enters (the last we had heard, he was off to Buenos Aires) with the news that Mundie is being offered a fortune to write a screenplay for a Roman Polanski remake of Hitchcock's Suspicion with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. McPhee enters replete with backpack, garbage can and picnic cooler. Pushing open the lid of his cooler is a giant prop lobster with razor sharp claws who bites McPhee's hand causing blood to shoot out.

Mundie and McPhee go to a bar to drink. McPhee is going to the airport to pick up Antonia. Although Mundie and McPhee mix up which pronunciation applies to which Antonia. Her name is almost the same as that of Mundie's mistress, Antonia. Guare regales us with the knowledge that the name of one "AnTOnia" rhymes with begonia, ammonia, and Philharmonia, and the name of the other, "AntoNIa" rhymes with "Korea, Onomatopoeia, Diarrhea, Gonorrhea and My Antonia—like Willa Cather".

Mundie wonders, "Could I work this into my screenplay for Suspicion. Is this the way Jane Fonda meets Redford?". He sees, we see, McPhee and Antonia as the screen stars. Both McPhee and Mundie are reading Jorge Luis Borges, each one's favorite writer. And they speak about the latter's writing about what happens when one meets his double. Furthermore, Mundie is later told (and told again), "Nobody's named McPhee. Sailors say 'Are you there, McPhee.' when they're out at sea and hear a terrible inexplicable sound ..." Thus, it appears that McPhee is another side of Mundie. I'm just skimming through the plot here, and there still remains about 65% of McPhee? to go.

Misdirected by McPhee, Mundie winds up in a house with two vicious, soon to be abandoned, children, Poe and Lilac, who slash him with knives, kick him in the groin and pour red wine on him. They are in the care of Peter and Wendy, au pair and caretaker, while (their mother and Clarence Spooner's daughter) Elsie Spooner tells her husband Schuyler that she was leaving him. By the way, Poe and Lilac are reading a Primo Levi book about his experiences in Auschwitz. There is so much that it is difficult to suss out what Guare is all about here. However, Peter has a short speech here that gives us an idea of what I think Guare has in mind:

Reality has so many real hobgoblins you don't need to make up horrors the way Clarence Spooner did. Children need to be told how to become adults. Elsie hated Walt Disney. He prostituted childhood. He keeps children and adults in a perpetual state of pre-pubescence.

Peter informs Mundie that Elsie is dead. Poe and Lilac were on the phone with Elsie when Schuyler pushed her out of a window because she was leaving him. However, Schuyler has reported that she jumped. While Mundie is showering, Poe and Elsie flush Mundie's clothes, books and wallet down the toilet, McPhee returns pushing his ancient lobster (which is electrocuted by a lamp thrown into its water filled pot) and Schuyler is still off negotiating the sale of Spooner's books to Disney. End of Act One.

The twists and turns of John Guare's imaginative but confounding narrative continue unabated throughout the hour and twenty minute second act. Bikini wearing Aunt Bitsy will be a principal addition to Guare's human menagerie. We also get an American Graffiti style summary of the post 1975 future years of Mundie and the others.

As act two begins ... no, enough is enough. Those interested can see McPhee on the McCarter stage where a talented, energetic and selfless cast of twelve (and several puppets) can be seen playing more than two dozen roles with a light, dexterous comic touch. Paul Gross as Mundie is delightfully ebullient, adding discernible zest to the entire project.

The complex and interestingly detailed sets by David Farley reach their apogee with that of the witty Magritte room of Mundie's Nantucket house. Farley also designed the colorful, often quite funny costumes. Director Sam Buntrock has incorporated any number of effective visual gags throughout the play. Certainly Buntrock and the entire cast have poured their hearts and souls into trying to vitalize this tale.

While the unwieldy excessiveness in every area of Are You There, McPhee? overwhelms the dedicated efforts of the talented company (including those of Sam Buntrock, whose direction is in tune with Guare's vision), it occurred to this viewer that Are You There, McPhee? might be more accessible and digestible in the form of an illustrated novel.

Are You There, McPhee? continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday (5/27), Wednesday, Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday and Saturday 8 pm; Matinees: Saturday 3 pm/ Sunday 2 pm) through June 3, 2012 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787; online:

Are You There, McPhee? by John Guare; directed by Sam Buntrock

Peter and others…………………... .Gideon Banner
McPhee and others…………………John Behlmann
Andrew and others……………………Jeremy Bobb
Wendy and others……………………... .Molly Camp
The Cop and others………………... Patrick Carroll
Alice and others…………………... Alicia Goranson
Mundie……………………………………... Paul Gross
Poe……………………………………Matthew Kuenne
Elsie and others…………………………... Jenn Lyon
Schuyler and others………... Danny Mastrogiorgio
Lilac…………………………………... ..Hope Springer
Bitsy and others……………………………Lusia Strus

Photo: Micha l Daniel

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