An eleven-pound lobster, child pornography, the summer of Jaws, murder intrigue, Walt Disney as a ruthless business man, a Robert Redford puppet: and that’s just the first act. The world premiere of John Guare’s ARE YOU THERE MCPHEE? at the McCarter Theatre tangles a knot of so many plot devises, twists, ironies, and pitfalls that the prevailing question at intermission is, “How are they EVER going to get this straightened out?” A manic new play by a highly decorated playwright (Tonys, Obies, Oliviers, et cetera, et cetera, on down the line), ARE YOU THERE MCPHEE? spins a darkly comic (and often quite hilarious) plot through a surrealist rabbit hole that gets ever weirder as the night progresses.
Think: “Fear and Loathing in Nantucket.”
Focusing on and narrated by fictional one-hit-wonder playwright Edmund Gowery, ARE YOU THERE MCPHEE? opens at a cocktail party where guests have been exchanging stories—the usual pleasantries: lost virginity on a roller coaster, misplaced body at a funeral, and so on—and now look to Gowery to add a story to the proceedings. Gowery’s story becomes the rest of the play, as he narrates the misadventures of an ill-fated weekend trip to Nantucket in 1975. Arriving on the island to meet the police about a child pornography ring that the tenants of his investment home had been running, Gowery discovers that the locals despise his name beyond all measure. Turns out, he had rudely declined the invitation to attend their amateur production of his play several years earlier, and they have never forgotten the affront. In hopes of atonement, Gowery ends up at the house of the production’s director, who he learns has died, and ends up trapped there by two adoring fans who are looking after the children of the dead woman whose husband is off in California trying to sell the rights of his father-in-law’s beloved children’s books to Walt Disney.
Got all that? Probably not, but that’s okay: neither does Gowery.
Played with a constant sense of bewildered urgency by Paul Gross, Gowery spends the bulk of this play descending into ever greater depths of confusion and desperation to escape Nantucket for home in Manhattan, back where life makes sense. Like any great adventure story (no matter how weird) ARE YOU THERE MCPHEE? gives its audience a constant sense of companionship with its panicked protagonist. The narrative conceit never leaves this play, so Gowery embodies both the drama’s lead actor and narrator. Rather than only watching him pick up the phone and order pizza, then, we get lines like “I order pizza to go, six dollars”; as he pours himself a drink, we hear, “I pour another glass of wine.” When narrating, Gross looks to the audience, engages the audience, talks to the audience. The technique does away with any sense of dramatic irony, implicating us as the cocktail party guests who are listening to this story unfold. We simultaneously watch 1975 Gowery as we listen to 2012 Gowery, sharing in the unpredictability of this adventure.
Gross shines in ARE YOU THERE MCPHEE?’s demanding lead. Although it features an ensemble of a dozen, the play is all but a one-man show. Gross engages with cast mates as he narrates, but his position as storyteller puts all other characters at his dramatic whim. The duty is thus his to show us the ebb and flow of the play’s madness, and Gross succeeds in presenting a character struggling to keep his wits about him as the world seems to crumble into ever greater depths of imperceptibility. From the manipulation of his cloths and hair, to the rising panic and frustration in his voice, Gross dexterously guides his character through this unpredictably winding rabbit hole.
Around its protagonist, ARE YOU THERE MCPHEE? places performers who must take on several different roles in Gowery’s story. The guests at the cocktail party become principles in the Nantucket story, jumping often between several roles. Director Sam Buntrock negotiates these demands impressively, moving actors in and out of the scene in various costumes and personae, as called for by the story’s narration. As Gowery’s story begins, its characters appear and disappear among the cocktail party guests, but as the plot thickens, all the actors join in its dramatization, sometimes appearing to engage with Gowery, sometimes appearing across the stage on the phone with him, and occasionally even becoming puppeteers. Buntrock’s steady direction is a welcome counterpoint to the plot’s frenzied complications, as he keeps the story’s important threads clearly at the fore.
As ought to be expected from a McCarter show, the sets are a highlight and deserve special mention. Beautifully designed by David Farley, and striking in their choreography and negotiation of space, the sets dazzle. As the play traverses a number of different locations, demanding several distinct environments, the sets move and shift eloquently, usually seamlessly as the dialogue continues. The house that traps Gowery hosts most of the play, but its set does not encompass the entire stage space: rather, all its sides encroach on the stage to give a sharp picture-frame effect, reminding us nicely that we are always watching a story within a story.
As we might also come to expect from the McCarter, ARE YOU THERE MCPHEE? is quite long, flirting with three hours. Such a stretch of constantly building complications threatens to overwhelm, and little of the complex plot is satisfactorily resolved. The play seems interested less in efficiency or neat resolutions, though, than it is in offering a tour-de-force of dark comedy. It takes courage and skill to make us laugh at themes of child porn and spousal murder, but ARE YOU THERE MCPHEE? treads undaunted into such territory. It is a long and frenzied ride through an uncharted labyrinth that may not be dramatically satisfying in the whole, but is certainly plenty of fun.
ARE YOU THERE MCPHEE?
By John Guare
Directed by Sam Buntrock
May 4 – June 3, 2012
91 University Place
Princeton, NJ, 08540