Playwright John Guare has said that he enjoys writing plays that defy easy defining. “Are You There, McPhee?,” which was commissioned by McCarter Theatre and closes the current season, should make him very happy. In two acts that apparently focus on a playwright, about 70 years old, recalling episodes from his younger life, Guare lurches between comedy and horror, takes farce far beyond its normal limits, and still manages to entertain an audience with disparate items such as a mysterious house, a pair of abandoned children and an 11-pound lobster with a mind of its own.
And, somehow, "McPhee" turns the evening into a “fun-and-games” memory play that touches the heart. A hard-working cast of 12 whisks us back 35 years to Nantucket Island, then flips forward to the present. Meanwhile an unseen stage crew uses every trick in the large repertory of theater tricks to slide rooms in and out, open passages throughout the set, even electrocute that huge lobster in a garbage pail before our eyes.
And playwright Guare never forgets that when you do memory plays. The human mind often plays its own tricks—what you remember might be the truth, but, just as easily, it might be what one wished the truth to be. So, along the way, Guare can’t help but feed us an ample supply of Hollywood references, often accompanied by puppets and frequent rather specific mentions of the film “Jaws.” (after all, it’s Nantucket and that’s where the film was shot.)
Through all this, a young director, Sam Buntrock, whose imagination clearly matches the writer, allows his talented company to play with theater elements with undisguised pleasure, stepping in and out of wall niches to drop delicious bon mots and sometimes staying to defend them. With actors doubling and tripling roles and dashing in and out, it is hard to pick out individual actors who impress. Certainly Paul Gross, as Mundie, our playwright within the play, will be remembered. Not only is he onstage the entire evening, but he is called upon to switch mood, switch ages and switch emphasis, sometimes within the same sentence. Molly Camp, who, among other roles, plays Wendy, impresses also.
But in an evening when window shades can rise or fall on verbal command from across the stage, the actors have to fight for recognition.
“Are You There, McPhee?” continues at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, through June 3. Please call the box office for information and reservations (609) 258-2787.