“For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday” flies into a tempest of clichíés

By Lucy Komisar

Playwright Sarah Ruhl has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a Tony nominee. She even got a MacArthur “genius” Award. She has done some fine work, especially the funny feminist “The Clean House” and the bizarre “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play.” But this play doesn‘t make the cut.

Ron Crawford as Dad and David Chandler, Daniel Jenkins, Lisa Emery, Keith Reddin & Kathleen Chalfant as his children, photo Joan Marcus.

The first part, about the pater familias (Ron Crawford) yellow-faced, near comatose and dying, seems to take place in tedious real time.  He chokes and death-gurgles a lot. His progeny suffer with him. (Where was Peter Pan to bring in some joy?) Hard to judge the role of director Les Waters, since he didn‘t have much to work with.

In the background is the clapboard house where the family grew up. And when he finally breathes his last, the five brothers and sisters repair there for a good old Irish wake, at which we hear about their lives and politics. Pretty evenly divided between right and left, though this is the Bill Clinton era, not the present.

But, as this is fantasy, dad gets up from the death bed and goes into the house, where he is met by the beloved dog who we learn has been put down. (If you know Peter Pan, the dog has a role to play. Cute.) Dad sits at the wake table, in a Santa hat.

Ron Crawford, Keith Reddin, David Chandler, Lisa Emery, & Kathleen Chalfant, photo Joan Marcus.

The college prof brother John (Daniel Jenkins) plays “the Saints” on a trumpet. They drink Jamisons and tell bad jokes. Or clichés like “Man created god as a means of social control.”

Invisible dad drops a bowl. On the mention of Tinkerbell, he hits a spoon on a cup. There‘s a quip about Newt Gingrich. This play is drowning in clichés. A reference to a conservative newspaper, The New York Times. Well, Ruhl got that right. And an attack on Ann Coulter. Does Coulter go back that far?

They fight about politics. The father who went to college on the GI bill became a conservative. (It‘s called pulling up the drawbridge.)

Ann (Kathleen Chalfant) asks, “When did you all go to the dark side under Reagan?” Yes, Chalfant is a terrific actor, but she needs a script, not a political speech.

Daniel Jenkins, Keith Reddin, Kathleen Chalfant & Lisa Emery, photo Joan Marcus.

The gimmick is that as a child Ann played Peter Pan in a local community theater. And that is indeed a cute segment. But you want to groan even then. Remember Peter‘s shadow that Wendy sewed on?

WENDY (Lisa Emery)
Everything has a shadow, Peter Pan. Honestly you should have gone to Jungian analysis. You would have learned that you can‘t experience joy without your dark side.

PETER PAN (Chalfant)
I don‘t know what you just said, Wendy.

You can live on Freud until you‘re 40 but when you‘re 70 and facing death you either need religion or Carl Jung.

Kathleen Chalfant & David Chandler, photo Joan Marcus.

My favorite character of the play is Captain Hook, played by brother Jim (David Chandler), also a doctor, who has been taking care of dad. He has a great red coat and long curls and chews the scenery. There is even sword play.

Director Waters does a nice job with the Peter Pan fantasy. Perhaps it solves a logistics problem, but he gets a bed to fly.

Does this all have a deeper meaning? Sorry, it eluded me.

Ruhl says she wrote the play for her mother on her 70th birthday, because mom had played Peter Pan in the local Davenport, Iowa, theater. She should have just got her a cake.

For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday.” Written by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Les Waters. Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42 St, New York City. 212) 279-4200. Opened Sept. 13, 2017, closes Oct 1, 2017. 9/13/17.

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