Monday, June 4, 2012

Are You There, McPhee?: John Guare at a Low Point

Paul Gross (centre), with Hope Springer and Matthew Kuenne, in Are You There, McPhee? (Photo: Michal Daniel)

What in the world has happened to John Guare?  The great American playwright who authored Six Degrees of Separation, The House of Blue Leaves, Bosoms and Neglect, Marco Polo Sings a Solo, the Lydie Breeze plays and the screenplay for Louis Malle’s Atlantic City has returned to the breathtaking rate of production he enjoyed in the seventies and eighties.  He opened a new play, A Free Man of Color, at Lincoln Center a year and a half ago; another, Are You There, McPhee?, just closed the McCarter Theatre season in Princeton, New Jersey; and the Signature Theater in New York has scheduled a third for next year.  But A Free Man of Color and Are You There, McPhee?, are hardly recognizable as works by Guare, whose plays are distinctive for hooking wild, complicated plot lines to perhaps the most acute instinct for dramatic structure since Eugene O’Neill.  These new projects are rambling and aimless. A Free Man of Color, an early-nineteenth-century picaresque inspired by the life of Joseph Cornet, the richest black man in New Orleans, had magnificent production values, but as a race play it was both pedantic and incoherent, like Suzan-Lori Parks’s much lauded Topdog Underdog.  And poor Jeffrey Wright, as Cornet, asked to carry the whole enterprise on his back, wandered through the scenes with a slightly puzzled resoluteness, as if neither Guare nor the director, George C. Wolfe (who also staged Topdog Underdog), had bothered to hand him a map.  But at least A Free Man of Color was about something.  Are You There, McPhee? has miles of narrative but no theme.  It’s a lost play.

The frame is a scene at a Manhattan party where a playwright named Mundie (Paul Gross) is asked to tell a story.  The one he comes up with is a shaggy-dog tale about a visit he made to Nantucket some years earlier on police business, when the tenants of a house he’d bought there with the proceeds from a successful play turned out to be child pornographers.  (Nantucket figures significantly in Guare’s career.  It was where Marco Polo Sings a Solo was originally produced, and the setting of his masterpiece, the two-part post-Civil War drama divided into Gardenia and Lydie Breeze.) When Mundie arrives he finds the house, which once belonged to a famous children’s book writer, abandoned; the local police chief (Patrick Carroll) suspects him of involvement in the porn ring; and it seems everyone he comes across participated in a community theatre production of one of his plays, The Internal Structure of Stars The experience had a profound effect on all their lives, and they haven’t forgiven Mundie for failing to respond when one of the actresses – the daughter of the children’s-book author, who was also the real-estate agent who sold him the house – invited him to come down and see the performance.  At the end of the first act, a Vietnam vet who calls himself McPhee (John Behlmann) and drinks with Mundie at a local bar persuades him to bring an enormous lobster in a garbage can to the home of the real-estate agent as a peace offering.  But instead of finding her there, he comes upon a couple, Peter and Wendy (Jeremy Bobb and Molly Camp), babysitting her two children (Matthew Kuenne and Hope Springer), who don’t know that their father (Danny Mastrogiorgio) – whom we see only at the other end of a telephone line – has either killed their mother or driven her to suicide, and is out in Hollywood trying to broker a production deal.  As the curtain falls, Mundie is left alone with the kids, without food supplies or money.  (The little boy flushes his clothes, with his wallet stuffed in his pants pocket, down the toilet.)

Playwright John Guare (Photo: Paul Chinn)
Guare has no doubt dealt with his share of amateur companies who’ve begged him to attend their editions of his plays; it’s a good comic premise.  But the snippets we hear from The Internal Structure of Stars sound dreadful (the idea would only work if they sounded wonderful), and he hasn’t fleshed out any of the characters, who also include Mundie’s on-again, off-again girl friend (Alicia Goranson). In Guare’s good plays, the plots rhyme in utterly unexpected ways, and the rhyming reflects the idea of connection that is his great theme, just as it’s Thornton Wilder’s in Our Town and Jane Wagner’s in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (the American play by a Guare contemporary that, though vastly different in style, reminds me most of Guare).  What seem at first like coincidences in Six Degrees of Separation – like the scene where the friends of the protagonists, happen to witness the suicide of an aspiring young actor, linked to both couples through a con man who’s invaded all of their lives – turn out to be evidence of a profound binding of the characters’ fates that both alters them forever and yet can’t bring them closer together because of the insurmountable barriers of class.  But in Are You There, McPhee? the coincidences are nothing more than that, and the endlessly strung-out plot begins to pound on your skull like a headache you can’t get rid of.  It doesn’t help that Guare falls back on the cheap, nerve-jangling strategy of having the phone ring every few minutes (as it does, to similar effect, in David Mamet’s Oleanna). 

I loved Paul Gross on the three-season Canadian TV miniseries Slings and Arrows, but he’s not especially good here, and most of the rest of the cast is terrible.  The burden of all the bad acting has to fall on the director, Sam Buntrock:  compounding the problems with the script, Are You There, McPhee? is one of the worst pieces of direction I’ve ever seen in a professional theatre.  The scenes aren’t shaped at all; the staging is a mess; and instead of directing the two children, Buntrock obviously just told them to scream and heave themselves at the adult actors and throw things.  I wanted to throw a few things, too, but not at the actors.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. I saw the play three times over the weekend. After the first viewing, I was perplexed. But on further viewings more became clear. Rather than being a play without a theme, I would describe it as a play juggling too many themes. And I found Paul Gross's performance to be a tour de force, making the play seem a lot better than it really was. With some trimming, I think the play could be wonderful. As it is, it's a fascinating puzzle that benefits greatly from a compelling lead actor.