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The idea of using the character of Peter Pan as a metaphor for never wanting to grow up, grow old and accept loss isn’t exactly a new one. But that doesn’t stop playwright Sarah Ruhl from trotting it out in her latest fantasia. 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.
Receiving its New York City premiere at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, the work represents a deeply personal effort by the author of such acclaimed plays as The Clean House, Eurydice and In the Next Room, or the vibrator play. In a program note, Ruhl dedicates the work to her mother and describes its strong autobiographical roots.
The central character, Ann (Chalfant), is directly inspired by Ruhl’s mother, who played Peter Pan as a teenager while growing up in Davenport, Iowa. In a charming opening monologue, Ann describes the experience, which even included getting her picture taken with Mary Martin when the actress, who was touring in the role, came to town.
The scene then shifts to a hospital room, where Ann is attending to her elderly dying father (Ron Crawford) along with her siblings John (Daniel Jenkins), Michael (Keith Reddin), Jim (David Chandler) and Wendy (Lisa Emery). The quintet alternates between making small talk and emotionally debating such issues as whether they should ask the doctor to increase their patriarch’s morphine dose. When their father suddenly and noisily expires, it almost comes as a relief to his exhausted offspring.
After a quick rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” shakily delivered by Michael on solo trumpet, the clan then gathers together to drink Irish whiskey and share remembrances. “We’re orphans now!” declares Wendy, with the conversation drifting to such subjects as politics (the play is set in the Bill Clinton-era ‘90s) and when each of the family members first felt they were a grownup. As they laugh and talk, the ghost of their father — and the family dog — putters around the room, occasionally making noises that give them a start.
As you might have guessed by now, the third scene takes place in Neverland, with the septuagenarian Ann as a gleefully crowing Peter, and her siblings as the other characters. But despite the familiar trappings, including a villainous Captain Hook, this is a rather more sophisticated interpretation of J.M. Barrie’s classic than usual, as evidenced by Wendy telling Peter that he would have benefited from Jungian analysis.
Even the most skilled playwright would have trouble juggling these disparate stylistic elements of confessional monologue, homespun naturalism and fantasy, and despite — or perhaps because of — Ruhl’s personal connection to her material, the piece feels hopelessly strained. The hospital scene, while certainly realistic in its depiction of the lengthy process of waiting for death to arrive, becomes tedious, while the family gathering that follows feels boringly familiar. And the elaborate Peter Pan conceit, while charming for a few minutes, doesn’t develop into anything interesting.
Chalfant, as always, is superb, mining her role for every bit of humor and emotion. The other members of the ensemble are equally fine, even if they’re never quite convincing as a family. And Macy, a rescue dog whose theatrical credits include a national tour of Annie, steals the show with his every appearance. But the cast’s efforts are not enough to lift this laborious work, directed by longtime Ruhl collaborator Les Waters. For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday obviously means a great deal to its playwright, but those intense feelings are unlikely to be shared by its audience. Except, of course, when Chalfant takes flight.
Venue: Playwrights Horizons, New York
Cast: Kathleen Chalfant, David Chandler, Ron Crawford, Lisa Emery, Daniel Jenkins, Keith Reddin
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl
Director: Les Waters
Set designer: David Zinn
Costume designer: Kristopher Castle
Lighting designer: Matt Frey
Music & sound design: Bray Poor, Charles Coes
Presented by Playwrights Horizons
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