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Peter and the Starcatcher

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Peter and the Starcatcher
Peter and the Starcatcher Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus.

When The 39 Steps, a relentlessly jokey riff on the classic Alfred Hitchcock dramatic film that implicated the art of the theatre in its spoofery, opened on Broadway in early 2008, I was not amused, and stated so at the time in no uncertain terms. Had I known what additional mock-u-theatre pieces would follow it onto New York stages, I might have gone easier on it: It looks downright civilized and reserved in comparison to the likes of Around the World in 80 Days, Shipwrecked!, Brief Encounter, and now New York Theatre Workshop’s Peter and Starcatcher, the most aggressively grievous yet.

It’s also the one that least had to be this way. For making an insta-winking laff riot of a theatrical throw-together, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s series of young-adult novels (primarily the first, Peter and the Starcatchers) would seem ideal source material. Telling the story of how an anonymous English orphan became Peter Pan with the help of some magical starstuff and the observant guardians charged with keeping it from entering the wrong hands, the books work with what we know by applying a few slight tweaks — and a generous side dish of conservative levity. Barry, the esteemed but astute newspaper columnist, would obviously settle for nothing less, and the books’ smart but carefree style would suggest a theatrical adaptation bearing at least some of the same irreverent vivacity.

Uh, no. Written by Rick Elice (who with Marshall Brickman wrote the unusually serviceable libretto for Jersey Boys) and co-directed by Roger Rees and Les Freres Corbusier’s inventive Alex Timbers (who most recently directed Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Pee-Wee Herman Show), Peter and the Starcatcher isn’t so much lighthearted as empty-headed. And stupidity this all-consuming is never, ever funny.

Whether it’s Christian Borle playing a proto–Captain Hook with GLAAD-baiting, mega-mincing flounciness that’s especially shocking in the wake of his more sensitive work as gay prophet Prior Walter earlier this season in Angels in America (even epicene Hook extraordinaire Cyril Ritchard didn’t dare go this far), Arnie Burton (from The 39 Steps) prancing through a raft of women’s roles for no discernible reason and with no discernible flair, Teddy Bergman as an island native chief who speaks almost exclusively in words related to Italian cuisine, or a second-act opener that finds the whole (mostly male) company cavorting about dressed as English-music-hall mermaids, this is a work that does not attempt consistency or creativity beyond the easiest and lamest gags imaginable.

Among the others: characters’ tendencies to say “God save her” anytime anyone mentions Queen Victoria; the rampant use of “TTFN” (“ta-ta for now”) when parting from each other; and invoking as one-liners targets as dully diverse as Sarah Palin, vegetarianism, and the Cadillac Escalade. Such things aren’t inherently funny because they’re anachronistically uttered by Victorian English people — they just come across as desperate. Likewise, whole exchanges rendered in the language of porpoises or dodo birds are not innovative or engaging, even if they’re inspired by the novels. Putting inane dialogue in the mouths of brilliant young actors such as Adam Chanler-Berat (as Peter-to-be) and Celia Keenan-Bolger (as his young muse, and future Mrs. Darling) does not automatically deepen it. And the smarmy smirkiness that drenches every line, the implicit condescension to the audience that they’ll feel really smart when they see this oh-so-funny thing, becomes tiresome after the first five minutes, let alone the complete 140-minute running time.

In the interests of thinking lovely thoughts and being gracious, I’ll acknowledge the useful contributions of Donyale Werle, whose cluttered ship’s hold set for the first act and jungle landscape for the second do heighten the atmosphere of imagination-driven playmaking. Wayne Barker’s music (there are a few isolated, if forgettable, songs), Paloma Young’s costumes, and Jeff Croiter’s lights are also not entirely without their charms.

Charm, however, is utterly lacking in every other millisecond of this morose enterprise, which is so full-to-bursting of itself that prospective audience members would be wise to approach with the same plastic protection required at a Gallagher concert — assuming they see any point in approaching it all. I, frankly, can’t name one: Many real plays and musicals out there, in New York and elsewhere, treat their audiences with more respect and intelligence than this one sees fit, and are much better suited for members of the family who may be older than three-and-a-half. Or, if you’re really longing for this kind of semi-spectacle, why not seek out a production of The 39 Steps? Though far from perfect, it evinces and inspires more artistry, cleverness, craft, and taste than this Peter and the Starcatcher could ever conceive of.


Peter and the Starcatcher
Through April 3
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Tickets online and current performance schedule: TicketCentral