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Theatre in Review: For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday (Playwrights Horizons)

Kathleen Chalfant, Daniel Jenkins, Keith Reddin, Lisa Emery. Photo: Joan Marcus

If anyone could convince me to run off to Neverland, it would be Kathleen Chalfant. Stepping out in front of the attractive blue show curtain at the beginning of Sarah Ruhl's wry and rueful little charade, the actress instantly wins us over with her warmth and wit. Chalfant is Ann, an academic who is closing in on her seventieth birthday; she is clutching a program for a production of Peter Pan staged in an Iowa children's theatre in 1955. Ann played Peter and, clearly, it was the highlight of her youth.

Ann doesn't tell us anything revelatory, but her speech is filled with thoroughly charming details -- a director with the very Midwestern name of Mary Fluhrer Nighswander; the mechanical difficulties of a flying apparatus designed by the local chiropractor (her pants were stuffed with Kotex because it cut into her legs); and the golden memory of meeting Mary Martin, who owned the role of Peter Pan at mid-century. "Our picture was taken for the local paper and she signed my script: To Ann, Peter Pan, with love, Mary Martin, Peter. I was so flustered I forgot my script in the dressing room and so she sent down my script and a bouquet of flowers."

As openers go, it's not traffic-stopping, but it is gracefully written, rather like having a catch-up chat with an old friend. It is, of course, delightful to see how easily Chalfant brings us into her confidence. (Recalling that she loved soaring above the stage as Peter, she adds that she learned, later in life, to be afraid of flying: "I'm one of those people who thinks they have to keep the plane aloft by worrying," she says -- and who among us hasn't felt that way at least once?). Of course, with that long face, aquiline nose, and pixie cut, the actress is something of a ringer for Martin in her Pan days; you might not be at all surprised if she were to suddenly belt the lyrics of "I've Gotta Crow." Then again, there's nothing pixie-ish about her speaking voice, which has the quality of a saxophone wrapped in velvet, and her manner is far more knowing. Chalfant makes Ann into the polar opposite of the boy who wouldn't grow up -- a woman of maturity and distinction, gifted with a sly sense of humor and a lightly melancholy sense of time's passing.

The last point is especially on topic, for the curtain parts and we learn that Ann, along with her siblings, are in a hospital attending to their dying father. Ruhl has a keen sense of what happens when families get together for such momentous occasions, playing the waiting game, falling into old patterns, and making conversation that, given the circumstances, often seems hilariously out of place. (In this respect, the play sometimes recalls Clare Barron's You Got Older, in which a family tragedy is masked under a surface of everyday chatter.) Ann's brother, John, calling up an old rivalry, says, teasingly, "We all know you got the highest SAT score, Annie. You don't need to be self-deprecating." Michael, another sibling, cattily notes that the numbers are probably tattooed on her arm. Wendy, the other female, remembers how the boys were allowed to drive around in a bus, chasing girls; she notes, "Mom and Dad had such a double standard for girls." And yes, it's not an accident that they are named John, Wendy, and Michael.

Through this sequence and into the next, after the father has passed on and an impromptu Irish wake is held, Ruhl's deft ear for dialogue is enough to hold our attention. Fueled by multiple glasses of Jamison's, the siblings' feelings about religion and politics come tumbling out, revealing divisions that were previously invisible. This section makes the best use of Ruhl's dizzy, sideways sense of humor. They were all raised Catholic, and Ann says, "I still take communion, to be sociable." Jim asks, "Do you remember having to be in the children's brigade for Nixon?" -- a thought that sends a little comic shudder around the room. During this passage, the juxtaposition of family memories, conversational tangents, and philosophical/political clashes recalls one of Richard Nelson's family get-togethers featuring the Apples or the Gabriels. And while none of the characters is finely drawn -- Ruhl admits that she conceived of them more as a chorus of voices -- they are beautifully played by Daniel Jenkins, Keith Reddin, David Chandler, and Lisa Emery. (Chandler plays Jim, the only one whose name is not a Peter Pan referent; given that, it's appropriate that, looking in the family album, he sighs, "I was always at the vanishing point in all the pictures.")

Up to this point, the play is uneventful, yet possessed of a certain melancholy magic in its consideration of middle-aged nostalgia as their father slips away from life. The early introduction of the Peter Pan motif seems apposite, since James Barrie's classic (and the musical derived from it) is suffused with a sense of time as a trap from which nobody escapes. But Ruhl badly overplays her hand in the jarring final sequence, in which Ann and the others find themselves inside a production of Peter Pan, complete with flying harnesses. Suddenly, silliness prevails, with everyone forced to leap about and make like children and pirates. As Wendy says, "Everything has a shadow, Peter Pan. Honestly, you should have gone into Jungian analysis. You would have learned that you can't experience joy without your dark side." There are gags about gout, diabetes, and panic attacks, along with purposely lame swordfights and plenty of effortful flying. Compared to what has come before, it plays like bad sketch comedy.

It doesn't help that Les Waters' direction, so delicate in the early scenes, turns so slapdash in the Peter Pan sequence, and that Matt Frey's otherwise solid lighting turns so flat. In addition, David Zinn's bland and unwieldy set, which tries to encompass a hospital room, the interior and exterior of the family's house, and the nursery of the Darlings in Peter Pan, ends up suggestive of nothing at all. Rather better are Kristopher Castle's costumes, especially a smashing Captain Hook costume for Chandler, and the original music and sound by Bray Poor and Charles Coes, which include such effects as television broadcasts and beeps from a heart monitor.

Ruhl has said that the play is a tribute to her mother, who did play Peter Pan in the '50s and who posed for a publicity shot with Mary Martin -- and, in its early scenes, the piece has the quality of a touching tribute. But, by making thuddingly explicit what has been clear all along, a gently touching meditation on mortality gets buried under a pile of self-indulgent shtick. No matter how many harnesses are involved, this is one Peter Pan that, in the end, defiantly refuses to fly. -- David Barbour


(14 September 2017)

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