Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 15, 2012
Peter and the Starcatcher a new play by Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers. Movement by Steven Hoggett. Music by Wayne Barker. Scenic design by Donyale Werle. Costume design by Paloma Young. Lighting design by Jeff Croiter. Sound design by Darron L West. Music direction by Marco Paguia. Cast: Christian Borle, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Adam Chanler-Berat, Teddy Bergman, Arnie Burton, Matt D'Amico, Kevin Del Aguila, Carson Elrod, Greg Hildreth, Rick Holmes, Isaiah Johnson, David Rossmer, Betsy Hogg, Orville Mendoza, Jason Ralph, John Sanders.
Despite a pedigree that would seem to make it a must-see — it was written by Rick Elice (one of the librettists of the above-average jukebox musical, Jersey Boys), based on the children's novel Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson; it's co-directed by two experienced hands, Roger Rees and Alex Timbers; and it stars legitimate talents in Christian Borle, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Adam Chanler-Berat — this show is an intricately carved catastrophe. And that's the worst part about this shambolic outing: This intellectually insulting assemblage is exactly what Elice, Rees, and Timbers intended to create.
Why these men would want to lobotomize Barry and Pearson's charming, lighthearted riff on the heretofore untold backstory of Peter Pan (Chanler-Berat), Mrs. Darling (Keenan-Bolger), and Captain Hook (Borle) is frankly such a mystery to me that I won't waste time here speculating on it. But that's exactly what they've done. Barry and Pearson wrote a whimsical, yet serious-of-intent, tale about how magic came to the Neverland irregulars (by way of a collection of starstuff, the remnants of falling stars, around which most of the action revolves) that has been corrupted into an abrasive laff fest that cares about only constantly telling you just how hilarious it is.
Nothing else can rationally explain why events set in 1885 can so baldly reference anachronisms like Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Starbucks, Ayn Rand, Sally Field, acronyms like "FYI" and "TTFN," and (yes, really) the Cadillac Escalade. Or why one character runs around speaking only in words related to Italian food, another utters almost exclusively alliterative phrases, and two more waste minutes bleating nonsense phrases in animal languages. Or why male actor Arnie Burton is mugging his way through a female role, in a gimmick so transparently unnecessary that he has a female understudy. Or why every time Queen Victoria's name is mentioned, however in passing, every person onstage must bark "God Save Her" as if it's a contest. Or why every single performance — every single one — is based on shouting with bulging eyes and barely suppressed smirks that shove "comedy" (quotation marks included) in your face whether you want it or not. (The endless stream of fart jokes and a late-show oral sex nod display no wit or originality, but are at least comedic fair game.)
Because every last bit of this is extraneous to the act of communication, the substance of the plot is forever at war with the frenzied desperation of its presentation. As with other recent forays of this nature (The 39 Steps and Brief Encounter are the two that made it to Broadway), an attempt is made to smooth over the prevailing idiocy by pretending that the show is really about the art of creating it. And, sure, if you're satisfied by acting via indication and appropriation of inappropriate set pieces to serve as aren't-they-clever props (triangular banners becoming the teeth of a crocodile, for example), then you'll probably groove on what happens here. But in my book, such externalities do not sufficiently explain — or, God forbid, excuse — ruthlessly mocking everything instead of playing things straight and truthful.
Fairness demands I acknowledge the few elements that make this enterprise worthwhile. Donyale Werle's scenic design comprises a dark and alluring tangle of ropes and planks for the seafaring first act and a brighter, more fantastic rendition of the soon-to-be-magical island we discover after intermission. Jeff Croiter's lighting is tense and evocative. Wayne Barker's songs may be dramatically inert, but they're engagingly composed. And since this production opened at New York Theatre Workshop a year ago, the script has been liberated of at least one of its eye-rolling shout-outs (to Sarah Palin) and Borle (now starring in NBC's theatre-oriented series Smash) has crafted a proto-Hook that less resembles an appalling, one-dimensional gay stereotype.
But this tweaking around the edges has neither addressed nor acknowledged the utter lack of point, soul, and brain that is this show's guiding philosophy. For those qualities, you really do need something more like War Horse. No, it doesn't need to make a sweeping epic out of found material — all it needs to do is show abiding respect for both you and itself. Alas, that's something that Peter and the Starcatcher does not even attempt.