John Guare strolls into an interview room in the recesses of the McCarter Theater singing at the top of his voice. He is fresh from a rehearsal of his new play, “Are You There, McPhee?” The show premieres Friday, May 4, and runs through Sunday, June 3, and if his mood is any indication, all is going well with the sometimes daunting process of mounting a newly commissioned work.
This is not Guare’s first time around the block, far from it. Best known for his plays “Six Degrees of Separation” and “The House of Blue Leaves,” he is the author of more than 40 works for the theater and has received enough plaudits and awards to fill several shelves in the Greenwich Village home he shares with his wife, artist/teacher/preservationist Adele Chatfield Taylor (disclaimer: we have no idea whether he displays such trophies). At 74, he continues to exude the enthusiasm that has marked his career.
Of “Are You There, McPhee?” he says, “We’re still in the middle of rehearsal, discovering it. This is that sublime time in a writer’s life where you’re living with an eraser, where if something doesn’t work today, you say ‘We can fix it tomorrow.’ That’s where we are right now; we’re trying to learn the play. The thrill of this time is you want the play taken away from you and the actors to make it their own. Rehearsal, for a writer, is a time of erasure, so hopefully, by opening night, the playwright is gone.”
Gone, but not forgotten. Anyone who has ever seen a John Guare play knows that he leaves a unique, indelible stamp on his work. His talent is for engaging an audience. You may be moved by his characters, incensed by them, laugh at them, or even dislike them intensely, but you will not forget them. He uses monologues, song, mime, point-of-view shifts, and direct addressing of the audience to further his cause.
Whether it’s a zoo worker living in Queens and desperately hoping to further his dubious songwriting career (“House of Blue Leaves”), a movie maker in arctic Norway filming the story of Marco Polo (“Marco Polo Sings a Solo”), the wealthiest “colored man” in 1801 New Orleans (“A Free Man of Color”), or an affluent couple eager to believe the story of a charming imposter (“Six Degrees of Separation”), Guare’s characters always tell a surprising, eventful story, and if they are not the most contented creatures in the world, well, that makes for the kind of theater Guare likes.
“The theater should be a place of the big gesture,” he says. “Not a place where you turn on the sink and real water comes out, and you say, ‘Oh, look, this must be real.’ ‘Death of a Salesman’ isn’t just about a family. Early in the play, Willy says, ‘I have thoughts, I have such thoughts.’ And those thoughts dissolve his world. In a kitchen sink drama (Guare notes that he has contempt for such shows) the world cannot vanish — you’re there in that room. I hate domestic dramas. I like the theater to be a place of imagination and expansion. I don’t want the curtain to go up and say, ‘Oh, there’s my living room.’ That said, one of my favorite young writers, Annie Baker, writes very small plays that are so full of life and magic that her language alone makes them. So there’s no hard and fast rule. But on the whole, I like a play that takes a chance.”
Nurturing young talent is one of Guare’s many sidelines. For the last two years, he has served as sole judge of the Yale Drama Series Award, an international competition for emerging playwrights. The 2012 award was announced, coincidentally, on the day of this interview, and the winner is Clarence Coo for his play “Beautiful Province.”
“It’s a wonderful contest,” Guare says. “We had over a thousand entries. It was a good year; we had 10 that were really good. (In Coo’s play) the tone didn’t collapse three-quarters of the way through; you could see the entirety of the play and his intention, and that is just rare. It was a very strong voice. So many playwrights, you get a play, and it’s so successfully written in the voice of Pinter or Beckett or Mamet or Tennessee Williams. They’re like brilliant ventriloquist acts. What you are always looking for is someone who finds his or her own voice.”
Guare knows the process of self-discovery very well. Growing up in Queens, he was an eager theatergoer whose parents fed him a steady diet of fondly remembered Broadway musicals and was mesmerized by live television dramas set in exotic locations like the American South. He railed against what he as a youngster thought of as “the nothingness of my surroundings.”
His horizons were expanded by his undergraduate years at Georgetown University and graduate work at the Yale School of Drama. In high school and college, he was writing plays and searching for his voice — with a little help from those who went before.
“I remember using Thornton Wilder’s one-act ‘The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden’ as a springboard for a play, making it a couple walking around the block. Playwrights are constantly raising the bar. When I was about 20 I saw (Edward Albee’s) ‘The Zoo Story.’ Everything changed. I didn’t know what it was, but I had never heard a story told that way, with an immediacy that I felt could belong to me.”
Guare began his career at Caffe Cino in the early 1960s, the experimental off-Broadway theater that also nurtured, among others, Lanford Wilson and Sam Shepard, as well as new actors like Al Pacino and Bernadette Peters.
In 1968 Guare received an Obie for his play ‘Muzeeka,’ but that same year, another show, ‘Cop-Out,’ was savaged by the critics. It was a devastating blow.
“I loved it, the critics hated it,” he recalls. “And then six weeks later, I was voted the most promising playwright of the season. I said, ‘Well, have the courage of your hatred.’ I left. I went to the Arctic Circle. And when I came back to New York five or six months later, the f–ing marquee was still up! As if I never left! It still hurts, but it made other plays possible. I’ve had friends who have written successes and been paralyzed by their success. So that’s a failure. To me a play is a success if it generates more work, if you can’t wait to get back to work.”
Guare did just that. “The House of Blue Leaves” won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play in 1971, and in 1986, the show’s revival won four Tony Awards. In 1972, Guare had more success writing the book of the Tony-winning musical “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” He received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City” in 1982.
Then in 1991 came “Six Degrees of Separation,” Guare’s greatest success. Running for 14 months on Broadway, Tony-nominated for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize nominee, it even gave rise to a popular party game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. And Guare wasn’t through. The next year, he received another Tony nomination for “Four Baboons Adoring the Sun.”
Now, as a revered elder statesman of American theater (an appellation he probably never expected, and would undoubtedly reject) he continues to challenge himself and his characters. No character is safe from him — he sends them off in all directions, the audience being challenged to continue to like them or, at least, root for them. His plays deal with deception — people deceiving themselves, deceiving others, allowing themselves to be deceived.
“That’s one way of putting it,” he says. “Theater is a place that is about illusion, trying to find reality in illusion. Deception seems to be a much more calculated, pre-meditative word.”
“Are You There, McPhee?” is set on Nantucket in the summer of 1975, and more than that Guare will not say. McCarter’s brochure states: “Edmund Gowery is trapped and knows that only way to escape is to change his life — he just doesn’t know how. Guare spins a darkly comic and spine-tingling tale.” There is also, apparently, an 11-pound lobster involved, though considering what stage actors are paid these days, it may not last the length of the run. Another hint about content: on Saturday, May 19, directly following the 3 p.m. performance, there will be on onstage panel titled “Are You There, McPhee? In Conversation: Playing with the Memory Play.”
The show is directed by Sam Buntrock, McCarter’s resident director, who last month helmed the theater’s production of Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties” (“I’m sorry Tom Stoppard didn’t see it. It was really wonderful,” Guare says). The cast is headed by Canadian actor Paul Gross (television’s “Due South”) and two local children, Hope Springer and Matthew Kuenne, veterans of McCarter’s annual “A Christmas Carol,” will also be onstage.
The future of “Are You There, McPhee?” is up in the air. Guare has been around theater far too long to plan for the long term. “If we open, if we get through our first preview on May 4, I will be the happiest man in the world. And then I’ll start dreaming about May 5.”
At one point, Guare sums up his approach by saying, “I like to make the audience crazy. I like to disorient the audience. I love chaos with a purpose, if that’s not an oxymoron.”
Even if it is, it describes the work of John Guare perfectly.
Are You There, McPhee?, McCarter Theater (Berlind), 91 University Place, Princeton. Friday, May 4, through Sunday, June 3. $20-$60. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.