nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 9, 2010
Is Peter Pan a children's play?
Most people seem to think so; there are certainly elements within it that are clearly intended for kids (or the kid inside the adult), like the famous moment when Peter asks the audience to clap if they believe in fairies in order to save Tinker Bell's life. (I'm assuming, by the way, that you know the story of Peter Pan; if you don't, go here.) The famous musical version, which excises many of the original play's scenes and incidents to make room for Peter to sing and the Indians and Lost Boys to dance, never fails to enchant audiences of all ages. And of course the magical idea of seeing somebody on stage actually fly makes everybody an awe-filled child, if only for a few minutes.
But the play, sans Jule Styne/Moose Charlap/Carolyn Leigh/Betty Comden/Adolph Green songs, restored/reordered by Trevor Nunn and John Caird in their version from the early 1980s...well, for me, it's just downright creepy. Original playwright James M. Barrie is endlessly imaginative in considering what a boy who never grew up might be like—what a wondrous idea, for example, to lose your own shadow and need to have it sewn back on! But for every delightful detail about what a fun if impossible world Neverland can be, there are troubling and disturbing tensions. "What am I to you?" Wendy keeps asking, as if kids in the audience need to attend to the arrested adolescence of their adventuring hero.
This, at any rate, is what kept coming back to me as I watched The New Acting Company's new production of Peter Pan, now playing at their charmingly intimate theatre within the Philip Coltoff Center (headquarters of the Children's Aid Society) in Greenwich Village. Director Stephen Michael Rondel is using the Nunn/Caird version, which runs more than two hours long. This version uses a Storyteller to narrate, which at once feels very child-friendly and yet makes things take longer to happen; the exposition at the top of the play is particularly lengthy, making us wait about half an hour until Pan and the kids finally fly. Rondel has made a major change to the text that didn't work for me at all: he's made Mrs. Darling the villain of the household, with actress Synge Maher doubling in that role and as a female Captain Hook. The main problem I had with this is that Hook and the Pirates say they want to kidnap Wendy because they, along with the Lost Boys, want a "mother" of their own; if Hook is a woman (and associated with the maternal in her alter-ego identity as Mrs. Darling), why does she need a mother? This really felt like a misstep on Rondel's part.
Otherwise, the staging is generally quite workable. Alex Demers and Jeremy Sabol ham it up deliciously as Hook's cowardly henchman Smee and Starkey, while three expert actresses—Erica Cenci, Elizabeth Ely, and Jessica Goldstein—anchor much of the play as the Lost Boys (here downsized to just three in number, with no real loss in fidelity; Ely, it should be noted, is still enrolled in public school). Wendy, Michael, John, and Peter are all portrayed by actual children: Charlotte Williams is very convincing as Wendy, and Zach Zamsky, who is 12, is as believable as Peter as you'd hope; it was definitely a treat to see him played by a boy rather than a grown woman. Phoebe Van Dusen and Sophie Shuster are fine as Wendy's brothers, but I wondered why Rondel didn't cast at least a few of the boys' roles with, well, boys. Kyla Schoer completes the cast as the Storyteller. And, oh yes, Rondel voices Tinker Bell—a choice that allows him to insert some archly humorous moments that may nonetheless not be strictly needed.
Katya Khellblau's very busy set gives us lots to look at but uses up a lot of stage real estate, forcing most of the action to the apron or to platforms high above the stage. The production is generally low-tech, which is fine for a show of this nature; Rondel's solution to the problem of how to fly Peter Pan and the children without Foy (or wires, or a sufficiently large/high playing area) is actually pretty ingenious. Justin Warner's video backdrop, though, is disappointing.
In the end, the kids stayed with the show most of the time, and the production really shines when it emphasizes imagination and play, two key themes of Barrie's work. Does the weird, morbid preoccupation with mothers, abandonment, and fear of adulthood with all of its attendant baggage really need to be given the same weight? I'd argue that, especially in a version meant for youngsters, the answer might be no.