Review by Tulis McCall
September 18, 2017
Let me say right off the bat that I am a fan of Sarah Ruhl. She not only thinks outside the box, she dwells there. With For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday (and yes the upper and lower cases are correct) now at Playwrights Horizons, Ms. Ruhl has hidden the welcome mat for out of towners.
A family of five children has convened to pay homage and sit vigil as their father, George, (Ron Crawford) lives out his last moments in a hospital. They have come from near and far. Two of the brothers are medical doctors - Jim (David Chandler) and Michael (Keith Reddin). One sister, Ann (Kathleen Chalfont), has her PhD in Rhetoric. One brother John (Daniel Jenkins) is a professor, and the youngest sister Wendy (Lisa Emery) is unidentified occupation-wise. They are convening in Davenport Iowa, where they all grew up. In the 1950's Davenport featured a community theatre where Ann appeared in Peter Pan AS Peter Pan. The highlight of her young life was the day she met Mary Martin who was on tour.
Having been in several locations where people were dying, I was hard pressed to identify with this collection of siblings. One is doing a crossword, another massaging her father's feet. The two doctors see to tubes and such. Somehow they all remained unconnected to each other or the moment. In my experience, these situations bring out the connected in everyone involved. The event takes precedence. The onlookers serve the event.
After George passes, the children assemble with their whisky and Chex-Mix at the homestead. They sit around the dining table and get a bit drunk. George, the father, makes unexplained entrances and exits. His ghost and his dog move in and out without being noticed. In one particularly jarring moment he even drops a bowl. This gets the children's attention, but one of them picks the bowl up without batting an eye and resumes the conversation. Where they think that bowl came from and how it came to crash to the floor in the middle of the room would have been the perfect moment to hit one out of the park. But it is passed over like a sigh.
There are other moments - none quite so dramatic - that are also passed over. And may I just point out here that IF you have a dog onstage, you are well advised to have no important dialogue going on while said dog is present. No one will pay the dialogue any attention. This happened several times throughout.
The dialogue in the first act is expository. These siblings appear close but uninformed about their lives. There is little or no intimacy - which is surprising as death brings that out in spades. Rather they seem to be discovering things about one another that they knew all along. Politics. Fears. Opinions. The conclusion is that the exposition is for the audience.
The second act transfers us to 1955 when Ann WAS Peter Pan. The siblings, John, Michael and Wendy all play their respective parts, with a few reservations when they each acknowledge that they are actually grown people. And the play slowly drifts to an end, if not a conclusion. Fairy dust for everyone - on the house.
The performances are all quite wonderful, although Ms. Emery can get caught up in a one-note jag for too long. Mr. Chandler is particularly engaging as Jim, and hilarious as Captain Hook.
This is a production that you want to like. Everyone is sincere and working hard to bring this text to life. It is the text that is wanting, the Humana Festival and Berkley Rep productions not withstanding. Ms. Ruhl has wandered out of the gate and off into a world that is somber and on the dull side. This play is an homage to her own family, and that may be part of the difficulty. Fiction and fact do not good bedfellows make if they are bound together.
There is a story struggling to get free and take wing tucked into this play.
"Sometimes moving, sometimes baggy play... if you are aiming for lightness, a leaden, humorless staging will sink you. To fly, a work like “For Peter Pan” needs a great deal more fairy dust than it gets here."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"The finale trots out familiar stuff about the magic of theater, but no amount of fairy dust and clapping can reanimate a play that never seemed alive to begin with. It’s a waste of the playwright’s gifts, and the audience’s time."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"Uneasily mixing family drama tropes with forced whimsy, For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday proves most notable for the undeniably charming sight of award-winning actress Kathleen Chalfant donning green tights and flying."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
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