Ron Crawford, Keith Reddin, David Chandler, Lisa Emery, Kathleen Chalfant & Daniel Jenkins in ‘For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Sarah Ruhl (In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), Stage Kiss) is a MacArthur “genius” award-winning playwright, whose plays sidle between realism and surrealism in always surprising ways.
Ruhl’s program note for her semi-autobiographical For Peter on her 70th birthday—now at Playwrights Horizons following its 2016 premiere at Louisville’s Humana Festival and a production at the Berkeley Rep—says it approximates the structure of Japanese noh drama. Claiming (inaccurately, I’m afraid) that a noh play has a three-part structure: “the protagonist meets the ghost, then recognizes the ghost, then dances with or embraces the ghost,” Ruhl even calls the play a “Midwestern noh drama.”
There’s a ghost in For Peter Pan . . . but little that’s noh-like about its use, structurally or dramatically. On the other hand, the play’s three “movements,” as Ruhl calls them, replicate the traditional three-part rhythmic structure of noh: jo (introduction: slow and stately), ha (development: increasing tension), and kyū (conclusion: climactic pacing).
For Peter Pan . . . , which runs 90 intermissionless minutes, is sporadically touching and interesting; ultimately, though, it’s structurally ungainly, dramatically meh, and awkwardly resolved. Set during the Clinton administration, it examines the tribulations of aging and growing up as seen through five middle-aged siblings responding to their father’s death.
Its first two movements are introduced in monologues by Ann (Kathleen Chalfant, compelling, if slightly too patrician for the role), an aging sometime actress with a Ph.D. in Rhetoric, who played Peter Pan as a teenager in Davenport, Iowa, in 1955. The role is inspired by Ruhl’s mother, Kathleen, whose photo as the boy who never grew up graces the program cover; Ruhl wrote the play as a gift for her 70th birthday.
In the unhurried first movement, which practically stops during several extensive pauses, the brothers and sisters are gathered in a Davenport hospital room (sets by David Zinn) to comfort their dying, 84-year-old father, George (Ron Crawford), a doctor. The periodic beeping of a medical machine regulates the leisurely pacing like a metronome. Ann is the eldest; the others, two of them also doctors, are John (Daniel Jenkins), Jim (David Chandler), Michael (Keith Reddin), and Wendy (Lisa Emery).
Ruhl reveals a loving, highly educated, Catholic family killing time and sharing family memories. The plotting is minimal, being little more than family members patiently caring for their father in his final moments, telling jokes, watching football, considering the ethics of Dad’s palliative care, and trying to avoid politics; Ann’s a liberal while the others seem mostly on the other side.
The supernatural enters when George’s ghost arises, unseen, from his deathbed and walks across the stage. The otherwise conventional scene is rescued by some good verbal exchanges and nicely calibrated staging by frequent Ruhl collaborator Les Waters.
Movement Two picks up the tempo with George’s Irish wake. The siblings drink, burst into song, and opine about things like liberalism and conservativism, religion and faith, death and the afterlife, and Plato vs. Aristotle. The opinions, however, never boil into the kind of passionate debate that might have made them more gripping. Meanwhile, the Peter Pan story simmers as a metaphoric subtext for everything being discussed.
This becomes particularly clear when the scene reaches its ultimate purpose, a conversation about what it means to be a grown up. It’s more or less engaging chitchat in the overheard dialogue tradition best represented by the naturalistic family discussions of Richard Nelson’s Apple family plays; even the invisible George’s comical, if vaguely defined, appearances have a familiar ring to them.
Movement Three, as is common in a Ruhl play, is totally unexpected. The realistic mode is abandoned as Ann dons her teenage Peter Pan garb (costumes by Kristopher Castle); if you believe in fairies, you’ll believe it still fits. After posing arms akimbo, she crows and takes us to the bedroom in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. As in a noh play’s conclusion, the rhythm quickens as the siblings, costumed as their namesakes, perform a farcical fantasy version of the old play; Peter flies about, and Captain Hook (David Chandler) wields a wooden sword. The ghost, finally speaking, reappears to cap Ruhl’s offbeat, rather precious meditation on the inevitability of aging.
Regardless of its whimsical charms, well-honed dialogue, and fine ensemble, For Peter Pan . . . depends too much on plotless conversation and theatrical smoke and mirrors. In fact, it could use some of that fairy dust that Peter so liberally sprinkles about.
For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through October 1
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).