Playwright John Guare in Princeton

By Susan Wallner

Playwright John Guare.

John Guare is one of the luminaries of the English speaking theater world. His plays Six Degrees of Separation and House of Blue Leaves have won Tonys, Obies, and NY Drama Critics Circle Awards, and his screenplay of Louis Malle’s Atlantic City was nominated for an Oscar. Right now, he’s camped out in a rehearsal room at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, preparing his newest play, Are You There, McPhee? for its world premiere in May. He took time out during a rehearsal break to talk to me about the production.

Guare is tall, distinguished, and polite, with white hair and perfectly round glasses. His new play centers around a character called Mundie, a playwright about 70 (Guare’s age). The play begins with Mundie telling a story about events that happened years before when he was going through a mid-30s crisis – as Guare describes it, “What the hell am I going to do, my adolescence is over now.”

Mundie is played by Paul Gross, known for his roles as Constable Benton Fraser on the drama Due South and Geoffrey Tenant on the series Slings & Arrows. Guare considers Gross “one of the most remarkable actors I have ever had the privilege to work with,” comparing him to Raul Julia, Swoosie Kurtz, and Stockard Channing.

Are You There, McPhee? is set on the island of Nantucket, a place Guare acknowledges as key to his own identity as a playwright and person. He first went there in 1961; it was as far away as he could get from New York City on $35. He lived there on and off for years – it was cheap, full of parties and intrigue, a place where he staged plays, and where met his wife. For Guare, “Nantucket was always a place of remarkable change.” By the late 1970s, however, he stopped visiting the island. It was becoming a “hedge fund paradise,” and he prefers to remember it as it once was.

Director Sam Buntrock and John Guare in rehearsal.

Sam Buntrock is directing Are You There, McPhee? A rising star in the theater world, he’s a young Brit who has settled for now in the United States. According to Guare, Buntrock felt an immediate affinity for the play when he read it, as if it was about his own life – in his mid-30s, he’s on one side of Mundie’s story, with Guare on the other.

As they spend day after day together in the McCarter’s bright, naturally lit rehearsal room, Guare says, “The director, me, our cast, the designers – we’re all here discovering this entity now, the play. And my role as playwright is, you watch the actors make it theirs and so the more they make it theirs, the more I vanish. And that’s what you want to have happen.”

Are You There, McPhee? by John Guare will have its world premiere at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton on May 11. Previews begin May 4.

Susan Wallner is an award-winning producer with PCK Media. She is a long-time contributor to State of the Arts, now airing on NJTV Sundays at 8 pm.