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Theatre in Review: Peter Pan (Bedlam/The Duke on 42nd Street)

Zuzanna Szadkowski, Edmund Lewis, Eric Tucker. Photo: Daniel Tucker

The press materials for Peter Pan quote Eric Tucker, its director, as saying "[it] feels like the perfect play for Bedlam, because J.M. Barrie's dry wit and humor provide so many thrilling possibilities for invention." Nice words, but Barrie's signature qualities are invisible in the rumpus currently unfolding at The Duke on 42nd Street. Among other things, Mr. Darling, usually portrayed as a bumbling domestic despot, comes across as enraged and abusive. Wendy and Peter's relationship is so sexually charged that you wonder why they don't just do it and get it over with. And Captain Hook and Smee, his henchman, are apparently fans of consensual fantasy sex play. Take my advice and send the kids to Radio City instead this holiday season.

It's hard to think of a property that has been the subject of more alternate versions over the years --there have been Peter Pan sequels, prequels, musicals, revisions, and re-imaginings. Barrie's life has been folded into the conversation, as well; at best, he appears to have been profoundly neurotic, with crippling sexual conflicts -- ideas that were ignored in the deeply dishonest film and stage versions of Finding Neverland. Whether you see Peter Pan as a delightful and touching children's tale or a dark fantasy impregnated with the seeds of tragedy and repression, there would seem to be little new to say about it. This may be one reason why Tucker's production is so baffling: It's a full-on assault that yields no point of view that I could discern.

Adapted by the members of the company from Barrie's script, this is, in many ways, a standard act of deconstruction. The play has been chopped up, with scenes rearranged, edited, and repeated. Some of Barrie's stage directions are delivered via voiceover. Most of the time, the actors perform the subtext in a greatly exaggerated way -- in the first nursery scene, Mrs. Darling seems to be on the edge of a panic attack -- or they play against the text, adding values that the author never intended. This is especially true of Kelley Curran's Wendy, who seems seized with apprehension, and Susannah Millonzi's Michael, Wendy's little brother, who here regards everyone with bitter contempt. (Actors also play characters of the opposite sex from time to time.) There's also a deliberately dismissive, poor-theatre approach to the fantasy elements: Instead of flying, Peter and the Darling children leap through a stage-left window. The scenes on Hook's ship are set in an inflatable kiddie pool. The main approach is to clear away the foundation of Victorian domestic manners on which Barrie's play is built. This intentional flimsiness extends to the design. John McDermott's set consists of an Astroturf deck surrounded by insubstantial flats, Charlotte Palmer-Lane's costumes are drawn from dozens of pieces seemingly pulled from a Goodwill bin, and Les Dickert's lighting does little more than provide basic illumination. Tucker's sound design is a parade of non sequiturs, including the theme song from the 1970s spaghetti Western They Call Me Trinity, a French chanson that calls to mind Charles Trenet, the Roy Orbison hit "Blue Bayou," "I Put a Spell on You," and Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters singing "Mele Kalikimaka (Hawaiian Christmas Song)." There's also a dance set to the Carly Rae Jepsen hit "Call Me Maybe."

If any of this caused us to look at Peter Pan in a new way, it might be worth the effort, but this production apparently has no interest in anything other than the next bit of comic business -- and, at the performance I attended, the actors seemed more amused than the audience. At a couple of points a hose is produced to drench a cast member. Hostile exchanges are broken up by bursts of forced laughter. The bit of business in which Mr. Darling slips his bad-tasting medicine into the dog Nana's bowl leads to a screaming match with Mrs. Darling. Wendy, changing her clothes, strips down to her bra and panties in front of Peter and the boys. In one of the pirate scenes, the question "Any of you want a little touch of the cat?" -- meaning a cat o' nine tails whip -- is accompanied by a grabbed crotch, giving the line a very different meaning.

Curran is a striking performer, even when put through the contortions described above, and Brad Heberlee makes a fairly dashing Peter, although it is tedious to watch him run around on all fours as Nana. But this is a mystifying experience: Tucker and company don't have any affection for the original play, nor do they have a cogent critique to offer. Instead, the play's mind wanders, following various ideas to their logical conclusions without bearing fruit. I don't mean to imply that I am upset that a classic is being manhandled. I'm ambivalent about Peter Pan, and any work is fair game for satire -- but the spoofing has to be better than the sloppy, sophomoric gags on offer here. Sorry, Peter: This one is not an awfully big adventure. -- David Barbour

(4 December 2017)

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