Let’s say you wrote a play, it was semi-successful, you sold the movie rights, and sight unseen bought a Nantucket trophy home with the winnings. Your lawyer told you to, so really—why not? Land of Herman Melville. Real estate investment. Good stuff. You’ll visit… eventually.
And let’s say that one day you get an alarming phone call from a peeved policeman—your trophy home, as yet untouched by you—is implicated in a child pornography scandal and yup, if you want to get out of this thing intact, you’d better catch the next puddle-jumper out of New York.
And let’s also say that when you arrive, and you start to unravel the dirty business with the policeman, more dirty business comes to head, and all of a sudden the officer is shouting strange words, strange words that you strangely recognize: “I’m not losing you to Uncle Joe Stalin!” he screams, “Stalin in Russian means man of steel. I’m an American; I’m stronger than any man of steel.”
He drops the intensity. “Then I coughed up blood on the white tablecloth,” he says. “I got applause on opening night.”
He’s not just a cop, he’s an amateur actor who’s recently performed in a Nantucket production of The Internal Structure of Stars… that semi-successful play you wrote. The play that paid for the now-irritating trophy home.
And then you remember: You had been invited—nay, begged—to attend his production, but you don’t attend amateur presentations of your work, so you had turned down the invitation.
And that’s why this guy’s upset. More than upset. Enraged. Along with what feels like the rest of this odd little island.
“You,” it turns out, are Edmund Gowery, narrator and core of John Guare’s newest flight-of-fancy play, Are You There, McPhee?, at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. And “you” are in for a wild, whirligig of a ride, an outing stuffed with Ritalin and puppets. Borges and Jaws. Lobsters and Disney.
As you make your way from one odd character to another, unraveling the rat’s nest of your life, you realize that yours is the journey of the writer’s comeuppance. The journey of facing your work, and all that it means to people, for good and bad. The Internal Structure of Stars left your pen, found its way to a printer, flew to Nantucket, and spawned itself into a whole new creation—founded in you, yet independent, an object wholly separate from its creator. And now the fans of that new creature expect something of you. But you missed their play. So what’s left to get? Revenge? Gulp.
Guare’s ambitions are large, his emphases manifold—any number of interpretations are viable. But Guare repeatedly seems interested in the bizarre contract between artist and consumer; the curious way one’s work or art or words separate from their creator, become their own breathing organisms, and stand there, complete, ready to be devoured, adored, or manipulated by a fickle and diverse public. On their own.
Gowery, unlike most writers, must confront his public, the independence of his work, and the way that work has woven itself into the lives of his fans, in a direct, cop-story sort of way. Gowery’s fan’s seethe at him, blame him, abuse him. Want him in jail.
But in some funny way, this behavior is the fiercest pledge of fandom, the strongest proof of impactful work.
Guare himself probably has something to say to this. Parts of McPhee are surely based in his experience.
But what responsibility does he bear to reveal those experiences? And what rights do we audience members have to Guare’s attention?
Depends with which characters you side.