During his long and lauded career, John Guare has demonstrated an unquestionably distinctive talent for writing challenging yet accessible dramatic literature. Except for “Six Degrees of Separation” he has shown a preference for telling stories that conspicuously take detours from reality. From the chaotic antics of a film maker and his entourage on an iceberg off the coast of Norway in the surreal “Marco Polo Sings a Solo” to the most recently produced Baroque dalliances of a wealthy Mulatto in 1801 New Orleans in “A Free Man of Color,” Guare has never compromised his essential dislike for naturalism by taking his own path toward the continental tendency favoring magical realism.
But nothing he has written, including my favorite of his basket-case plays “The House of Blue Leaves,” is likely to have prepared you for the dementedly off-the-wall doings and the dizzyingly out-of-control characters that we are confronted with in “Are You There, McPhee?,” certainly Guare’s most personally free-wheeling and comically absurdist latest play, as originally commissioned by the McCarter Theater and Princeton University for its world premiere.
Unfortunately, director Sam Buntrock hasn’t done all that he needed to do to bring a cohesive shape to what is now an interestingly conceived but all too recklessly structured dark farce. Consequently you may think you need a road map, a guide, and possibly an analyst in the seat next to you to help you keep up with it once you get past the first admittedly rollicking hour. This may be Guare’s most purposefully convoluted and preposterously contrived story yet.
Though buoyed with puppetry, some of it fanciful and some of it fearsome, the play carries an overabundance of digressive allusions to old movies and classic children’s literature. At two hours and 45 minutes, it is also egregiously long. More than a little judicious pruning is in order to keep our interest from waning as the main character proceeds on his often humorous, if also self-serving journey from his present to his past and back again.
You certainly can’t depend on the formidable and frenetically driven narrative to keep you abreast, even as it is driven in full throttle by the splendid Paul Gross as Edmund Gowry (Mundie to his friends), a playwright and the play’s point-of-view character. When egged on to regale his friends with a story as a diversion during a cocktail party, he gets the inspiration to embroider/enhance a personal experience that may or may not be rooted in or recruited from reality. As his story becomes grounded in the decidedly demented distortions of his own memory, Mundie finds himself, as did Alice when she fell into the rabbit hole, willing to submit to the sometimes horrific, but also occasionally hilariously contrived conditions and conventions provided by his experiences in an alternate universe.
It helps that Gross, who created a well-deserved following as the neurotic artistic director of a Canadian theater company in the TV series “Slings and Arrows” and recently appeared on Broadway in “Private Lives,” is an attractive leading man. He has the task of dominating as well as dictating the course of the play from its beginning to its end, sometimes breaking the fourth wall. He careens (no other word for it) brilliantly through a series of dream-like absurdist adventures — none of which appear to conspire in his behalf but rather define him as a victimized provocateur presumably in search of a newly imagined self.
The play within the play, or story within the story, is set in Nantucket in the summer of 1975. “Jaws” is playing at the local cinema and is the talk of the island where Mundie had purchased an income-producing rental property. Notwithstanding the ongoing affair he is having with his lawyer’s wife, now vacationing in Argentina, as well as one with an interim tart, Mundie is summoned to the island by police who claim the house is being used by child pornographers and is now a crime scene.
It won’t be much of a plot spoiler to reveal that everyone he encounters on the island, including the detective, claims to have played a role in a local production of his last play, “The Structure of Stars,” and that a woman has either been murdered or committed suicide in a home to which he has been invited for dinner by a strange man he met in a Nantucket bar. That man is named McPhee and he carts around an 11-pound live lobster (a puppet, of course) in a basket.
What is Mundie to do when confronted by the shenanigans of two incorrigible, drug-addled children left in the care of an incompetent au pair couple named Wendy and Peter while their irresponsible father has gone off to make a film deal with Disney? As it happens, Mundie is also in the midst of negotiations to write a screenplay for a proposed remake of the Hitchcock film “Suspicion” to be directed by Roman Polanski.
The play, like Mundie’s mind, is also empowered by his memories of children’s literature. The primary question it seems to pose is whether Mundie is to be forever trapped in this Never-Never land, or will his desire to change himself be strong enough to transform his vision/version of his past and be the key to his future. Nice work if he can do it. I suspect that the play would be better served if the children, who have much too much stage time, were played by puppets, making them less deplorable and potentially more delightful.
Though the other actors ably play more than one character, they are mostly defined by their caricatured and cartoon-ish behavior. David Farley’s impressive set includes a brick wall, some fantastical as well as conventional interiors that support the idea of two interlocking worlds. The title of the play comes from a nautical term, supposedly used by sailors when they need to diffuse what they perceive as impending danger. You might just keep in mind another old expression, “Forewarned is forearmed.”
“Are You There, McPhee,” Berlind Theater at McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. $20-$65. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.