The familiar soundtrack from “Jaws” pulses through “Are You There, McPhee?”
Havoc threatens to break out at every whacked-out juncture in John Guare’s latest long frolic of a play -- running close to three hours and traversing cultural forces as diverse as Walt Disney, Jorge Luis Borges, Alfred Hitchcock and Jane Fonda.
“I sort of welcome nightmares,” the lead character r says, offering an apercu of Guare’s dramaturgical gambit. “I feel they’re telling the truth.”
“McPhee,” a shaggy-dog tale-within-a tale having its world premiere at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, is a play about story telling.
Beginning in the present, a group of people hanging out in an alley tell Edmund Gowery, their playwright friend, that it’s his turn to entertain them with a story.
Mundie (Paul Gross), long removed from his brainy hit “Internal Structure of Stars,” accedes, launching into the tale of a house on Nantucket whose tenants have been arrested on child-pornography charges.
It was the summer of 1975 and Mundie has used the proceeds from “Stars” to purchase the house as an investment. He’s never been to the island, let alone met his tenants. When the police tell him he’d better come up from Manhattan, he encounters an entire populace, it seems, soured on him. He never showed up for their community theater production of his play, with dire consequences for the leading lady.
They assure him, the show was claimed by some to have been “better than the original” even though the main character -- the authorial stand-in -- was played by a puppet.
Puppets, too, figure prominently in “Are You There, McPhee?” a phrase apparently used by sailors in response to threatening bumps in the night. Borges appears frequently as one of these talking heads, and ululating waves of magic realism rise and fall throughout the show.
This was the summer of “Jaws,” and while the well-groomed island dwellers are reading Peter Benchley’s novel and debating the reality of a shark named Bruce, Mundie holds close to his copy of Borges’s “Labyrinths.”
“Everything is so strange that even this is possible,” Borges tells Mundie, who will spend the next few hours fending off predatory citizens, feeding two abandoned children and pondering the wisdom of his life choices.
Mundie identifies with the ever-enraged Donald Duck. Soon, a character is explaining to him that “Walt Disney is God’s apology for the Holocaust,” as if that explains anything.
“To quote Mary Poppins, ‘We live in a world where nothing need ever be explained,’” he’s told.
Well, there’s little explaining here. Guare, a living encyclopedia of culture highbrow and low, is even more loquacious and not infrequently, baffling than he was in his freewheeling “A Free Man of Color.”
The director of that earlier show, George C. Wolfe, had a stronger command of Guare’s rhythms than Sam Buntrock reveals here. And Gross conveys little humor as a reluctant traveler through this increasingly mad universe.
Nevertheless, the cultural synapses Guare sparks can be as dizzingly funny as a Thomas Pynchon novel and just as escapist. In the right hands, “Are You There, McPhee?” will be scintillating.
Through June 3 at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ. Information: +1-609-258-2787; http://www.mccarter.org Rating: ***
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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