Sunday, April 19, 2015

Review: 'Are You There, McPhee?'

John Guare's mix of realism and fanstasy in "Are You There, McPhee?" a world premiere at McCarter Theatre, becomes a tiresome saga. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews from Princeton.

Review: 'Are You There, McPhee?'

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Jeremy Bobb and Paul Gross in "Are You There, McPhee?" Gross portrays the playwright who's at the center of the piece. Photo by Michal Daniel.

By Howard Shapiro

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 that he has a story about an inexplicable event in his life that involves abandoned children, a porn ring, a sea monster and Walt Disney.

And so he begins the story, which sounds compelling 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.

is, at root, about a playwright who rejects an invitation to Nantucket to see an amateur group perform his single masterpiece called The Internal Structure of Stars. The thespians have found this work to be life-changing, and the playwright’s rebuff has infuriated them. It comes back to haunt him when he’s forced to visit Nantucket in 1975, the same summer that Jaws was the on-screen blockbuster.

Jaws figures highly 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 lifesize 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 of 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 and so do the characters as they move farther 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 sensibilty of McPhee.

Paul Gross, the popular Canaduian actor who played opposite Kim Cattrall on Broadway in Private Lives lasts season and is known for his role of Benton Fraser on TV's Due South, portrays the playwright. Gross does a grand job on stage the entire two acts, cooly 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,, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at


Are You There, McPhee?:  Through June 3 at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tickets: $20-$65. Information: 609-258-2787 or

About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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