Peter and the Starcatcher
nytheatre.com review by Avi Glickstein
March 6, 2011
Second star to the right and straight on 'till morning—possibly the most lyrical and best-loved set of travel directions ever written. They are, of course, the directions to Never Never Land, the home of Peter Pan. As written by J.M. Barrie, Neverland is a place completely hidden, especially from the vilest creatures known—grown-ups. On the other hand, the Neverland you will encounter in Peter and the Starcatcher, now playing at New York Theatre Workshop, is apparently an ordinary island anyone can find by ship. Not only that, but it is an island Peter is forced to remain on by (gasp) a grown-up, who creates Tinkerbell for him out of a bird. Maybe this is a Neverland, but it’s definitely not the Neverland.
The play, adapted by Rick Elice from the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, imagines Peter as an orphan with no name, who, along with two fellow orphans, has been locked away on a ship christened "Neverland" en route to Rundoon, where they will become slaves to the King of Rundoon. On the same ship is Molly, a 13- (or is it 15?)-year old girl, accompanied by her nana, Mrs. Bumbrake. She has been sent along this much longer, safer route to Rundoon by her stepfather, Lord Astor, who is on another ship, The Wasp, accompanying precious cargo for Queen Victoria. The Wasp is captured by the vicious pirate Black Stache, and, soon, all paths converge on an island later to be known as Neverland.
Now, I’m not as big a traditionalist as I sound. I’m fine with reimagining the origins of classic characters, as long as they make sense in the context of that character and the world in which they live. The world of Peter Pan is one in which there are things that cannot be explained. They just are. Mermaids and fairies exist, children do not grow up, and, if they think good enough thoughts, with the help of some fairy dust, anyone can fly. The need to explain each of these things through the invention of another sort of magic (namely “starstuff,” which falls from the sky onto Earth and is retrieved by the titular Starcatchers) lends the play a sort of banality. It is simply trying too hard to make everything add up in the end, which, of course, it doesn’t.
Presumably—I haven’t read it—these are problems rooted in the novel. As such, I could have squashed some of my misgivings about the plot if it weren’t for one thing: the jokes. The novel was co-written by humorist Dave Barry, whose contribution to the book must have been the inspiration for the never-ending stream of one-liners and groaners on display. Amusing at first, the bits become progressively more cliché and anachronistic, as when a pirate casually references Starbucks for no good reason. Theatrical self-awareness has long been used as a storytelling device, and it makes sense here when actors step out of character to narrate. However, there seems to be an expectation that we should suddenly accept that the characters know they’re in a play supposedly set in 1885. It’s a fine line, one that co-director (along with Roger Rees) Alex Timbers was able to tread more effectively in Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson. Here, it has the effect of keeping us at arm’s length from a story we walk into the theater desperately wanting to embrace.
The jokiness of the script—and possibly the novel—seems to be a symptom of a certain schizophrenia at work. This isn’t surprising in a play that has two co-directors and is adapted from a novel by two co-writers. It wants to be completely irreverent, but it also wants us to feel connected to and moved by its links to the original. The set design by Donyale Werle is gorgeous. It masks the ubiquitous rear brick wall of New York Theatre Workshop, outfitting the space with a copper-colored proscenium and progressing from dirty charcoaled darkness in the first act to the appropriately technicolored wonderscape of Neverland in the second. However, Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum’s fight choreography, which should have been central to a Peter Pan adventure play like this, is disappointingly anemic. Wayne Barker’s music and Darron L. West’s sound design complement the play’s action effectively, but, at the same time, the cast occasionally bursts inexplicably and confusingly into unfortunately forgettable songs (with the exception of a marvelously fun second-act curtain raiser).
Perhaps the most glaring instance of the play fighting with itself and the original source material is in how it deals with Neverland’s natives—or, rather, how it doesn’t deal with them. The “how, squaw” stereotype has been replaced with a group of Mollusks. Whether they are said stereotypes who have been transformed by starstuff into mollusks (one of them wears what appears to be a headdress) or just talking mollusks or people who call themselves mollusks is completely unclear. There’s no indication from their costumes—which are otherwise inventively designed by Paloma Young—and their vaguely Italian accents just confuse matters further. Rather than an offensive choice, we’re left with no choice at all.
Despite all this, there is much worth crowing about—so to speak. The cast works tirelessly, selling every moment with energetic, professional aplomb. As Molly, Celia Keenan-Bolger displays an earnest and confident intelligence that shatters movingly, Adam Chanler-Berat’s Boy (later Peter) provides glimmers of the arrogant trickster to come, and Christian Borle as Hook-to-be Black Stache has spot-on timing and great comedic inventiveness (if influenced perhaps more than slightly by Tim Curry). The first act is filled with economical, creative staging, mostly due to a wonderfully utilized—and deceptively simple—length of rope. And it should not go unmentioned that the audience at the performance I attended, for the most part, seemed to enjoy every moment.
I’m not a Peter Pan fanatic. There is room for embellishment and play in the story. After all, isn’t that what Pan is about—play? I just came away feeling slightly saddened. The play had ended in a beautifully moving moment. It was moving, though, not because it had been earned by the play, but because it had been earned by the story I walked in with. I honestly wish it could have been both.