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For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - September 13, 2017

Kathleen Chalfant and Ron Crawford
Photo by Joan Marcus

Sarah Ruhl, who's usually so eager to provoke and bend rules and tease her audience, has gone mostly naturalistic and presentational with her latest. For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, at Playwrights Horizons, begins with simplicity itself: Ann (Kathleen Chalfant), a former community-theater Peter Pan from Davenport, Iowa, steps in front of the curtain, announces she'll be playing Peter, and starts reminiscing about her earlier triumph performing James M. Barrie. It's the 1990s, and the details she imparts are specific, and we sense at once what we're about to see is based on Ruhl's family. And we're right—her extended family, anyway. The timing feels a bit off: Evidently Ann flew and fought pirates 40 years earlier, when she was 30ish, but she hadn't been to college yet, though she's now a Ph.D. A late bloomer? Ruhl isn't telling, and other helpful details about Ann and her four siblings are similarly omitted. Plus, the script notes that their father (Ron Crawford) is 84. He had Ann when he was 14?

We're about to meet them all, though, and under the most intimate and dire of circumstances: Their dad is dying. David Zinn's somewhat confusing set becomes a hospital room, where Ann, John (Daniel Jenkins), Michael (Keith Reddin), Jim (David Chandler), and Wendy (Lisa Emery) await the inevitable. Note those names: Ruhl is serving up Peter Pan parallels, the three Darling children plus two, for no discernible reason. Wendy, Michael, and John don't particularly share the personalities of their Barrie namesakes, and Ann and Jim don't feel like add-ons. But it's the most real and convincing family you've probably seen onstage since The Humans, and as they watch their dad expire, then hit the living room for a whiskey-heavy wake (they're Irish), we're honored to be in their presence.

Those of us who have been through this ordeal will recognize the family dynamics and strongly feel their resonance. While going quickly through a couple of Kubler-Ross stages, the brood grieve, joke, drink, sing, reminisce, and complete each other's thoughts and sentences. More character detail wouldn't hurt: We don't find out too much about any of them, except that Jim and Michael are doctors, Ann has a doctorate in rhetoric and is the brainy one, Wendy feels fulfilled only when helping others and has a career in charitable work, and John has a mild inferiority complex. They're solid Midwesterners, the men are Republican and the women likely aren't, and the time period being what it is, there are harsh words from the guys about Slick Willy (that's what some people used to call Bill Clinton, kids) and political correctness, with swift protests from Ann and Wendy.

It's small talk, mostly, but it's lovely, and as one son whispers to their father, "It's OK for you to go, Dad, you gave us each other," it's impossible not to be moved. And the actors are all wonderful, led by Chalfant's contemplative yet drama-loving Ann, with Emery's voice-of-reason Wendy not far behind. The small talk does get bigger: of the meaning of death, the possibility of afterlife, the help/hindrance of being an observant Catholic, what being a grownup is. The ghost of their dad is hovering, but they're only semi-conscious of it, and the feeling is of a functional, loving clan, something the stage tends to shy away from. Possibly that's because there's more inherent drama in family dysfunction. But we like this bunch, and we're glad to be with them.

Until Ruhl goes . . . somewhere else. Maybe into Ann's brain, maybe into every character's. It's a third act of sorts, a replaying of Peter Pan heavy with Barrie dialogue, meant to evoke—the intermingling of our fantasy and real lives, perhaps, the childhood stories that reverberate in adulthood, or the search for a safe place. Whatever it is, it feels tacked-on, despite Ruhl's assurances in her notes that she's translating traditional three-part Noh drama structure into Midwestern terms. Chalfant (who, in her Peter Pan togs, looks alarmingly like a latter-day Mary Martin) gets to crow, a lot; Jim gets to be Captain Hook, and director Les Waters has everybody play broadly and straight out front, like in a not-very-good amateur production of Peter Pan. There's flying, and the audience has to clap to keep the wounded Peter (not Tinker Bell) alive, and if Ruhl is trying to make a point, it didn't reach row G.

With this and How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, at Lincoln Center earlier this year, Ruhl seems to be veering away from the experimental and deliberately provocative playwriting adventures of her earlier career. No vibrators in For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, no rewritten myths, and no magical realism, unless that's what the third act is. It's mostly a distillation of how families hold together and support one another in crisis, how family myths build, and how sibling love defeats sibling rivalry. While on that ground, it's emotional and rewarding. Then we're in Neverland, for reasons beyond me, and the potency evaporates. Worth seeing, this latest Ruhl? Two-thirds of it, yes.

For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday
Through October 1
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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