PRINCETON — From the get-go, you know you're into a bizarre tale with John Guare's Are You There, McPhee?, a world premiere that opened Friday at Princeton's McCarter Theatre. Its narrator, a playwright, tells acquaintances he has a story to tell, about an inexplicable event in his life involving abandoned children, a porn ring, a sea monster, and Walt Disney.
And so he begins the narrative, which sounds compelling enough at its start. But the tiresome Are You There, McPhee? turns out to be a saga without substance, a piece that combines elements of the real and unreal with little effect.
McPhee is, at root, about a playwright who rejects an invitation to Nantucket to see an amateur group perform his single masterpiece, The Internal Structure of Stars. The thespians have found this work to be life-changing, and the playwright's rebuff infuriates them. This comes back to haunt him when he's forced to visit Nantucket in 1975, the same summer that Jaws was the on-screen blockbuster.
The movie looms large in McPhee, maybe because its success so clearly overwhelms the playwright's, maybe because of the way it captures the nation, maybe because the shark is a metaphor for … many things.
The play's twists and turns are reminiscent of some of the filmmaking Guare refers to in a play overladen with references to movies, movie greats, children's books, the entertainment industry, and Jorge Luis Borges, the late Argentine short story writer who becomes a life-size puppet in the telling of the tale. None of this is constantly witty or constantly funny — just constant.
Guare, the Tony-winning playwright of The House of Blue Leaves, revived on Broadway last season, and Six Degrees of Separation, appears to explore the way we remember and reshape our own stories, and the effects of popular culture on our psyches. But by some point in the first half of McPhee, the details become tedious, as do the characters, who move further into a twilight zone that is neither spooky nor revealing.
The play simply takes itself too seriously, despite the production's nice theatrical touches from director Sam Buntrock and his creative team — particularly David Farley, whose scenery impressively mimics the storybook sensibility of McPhee.
Paul Gross, the popular Canadian actor who played opposite Kim Cattrall on Broadway in Private Lives last season and is known for his role of Benton Fraser on TV's Due South, portrays the playwright. Gross, on stage for the entire two acts, does a grand job, coolly manipulating a character who seems down-to-earth one moment and an unreliable narrator the next. The large supporting cast is also excellent, each playing several roles in a story whose sweep is broad and effect minimal.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, email@example.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro.
Are You There, McPhee?
Through June 3 at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tickets: $20-$65. Information: 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.