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Are You There, McPhee?

Paul Gross stars in the world premiere of John Guare's overly convoluted if promising new play at the McCarter Theatre.

By South Jersey
Paul Gross in Are You There, McPhee?
(© Michal Daniel)
Paul Gross in Are You There, McPhee?
(© Michal Daniel)
Anyone following John Guare's career knows his output is like no other and therefore makes the prolific fellow a national treasure. His latest autobiographically-inspired play, Are You There, McPhee?, now making its world premiere at Princeton's McCarter Theatre Center, is grounded in a hair-raising yet hilarious event that overtook him on his beloved Nantucket 35 years ago. But it needs some serious trimming of its sprawling script to become one of his finest and funniest items.

The work, which is far too convoluted to recount in great detail, focuses on a Guare-like playwright called Edmund "Mundie" Gowery (Paul Gross) telling partygoers a shaggy-dog story about arriving in Nantucket to deal with problems concerning the porn-disseminating occupants of a house he owns.

Before much time goes by after his arrival, Mundie meets a man named McPhee (John Behlmann), who has recently appeared in a community production of Mundie's one hit, an opus that sounds something like Guare's The House of Blue Leaves.

Their charged encounter leads to Mundie's visiting a house inhabited by Peter (Gideon Banner), Wendy (Molly Camp) and two dreadful children constantly being fed Ritalin. Before long, Peter and Wendy (get it, children's story fans?) disappear, and Mundie is stuck minding the Maurice-Sendak-like tykes.

On it goes, as the time-frame alternates between 1975 and the present, and characters like Mundie's sometime girlfriend Alice (Alicia Goranson) and the cottage's actual owner Schuyler (Danny Mastrogiorgio) swirl about while perplexing and frustrating the suddenly house-bound and money-bereft protagonist.

Guare's script, perplexing and frustrating as it can be, has been directed by Sam Buntrock with as much dispatch as he can possibly muster. The members of his cast -- including a Jorge Luis Borges puppet -- respond with aplomb on a David Farley set that has an initially prominent high downstage brick wall, which is raised to reveal first Mundie's stylized home and then the more realistic Peter-and-Wendy-inhabited dwelling.

While the work is far too long for its own good, Guare's signature joy at unfolding the simultaneously amusing and scarifying personal anecdote remains ever-present. More than that, his offbeat sense of what's verbally rib-tickling continues unabated.

For instance, on one of Schuyler's many phone calls from the coast where he's taking potentially lucrative film-studio meetings, he observes, "Walt Disney is God's apology for the Holocaust." Who wouldn't hope for the best when such quips abound?


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