Poor J.M. Barrie hasn’t had an easy time of it in the 21st century, with the notable exception of revivals of one-acts at the Mint Theater. The 2015 musical Finding Neverland, based on a film, focused on the dramatist’s faltering after failures and his triumphant comeback with Peter Pan, his classic 1904 play about the boy who won’t grow up—a play that, by the way, most of Finding Neverland’s audience had probably never seen, since nobody actually stages it. It’s known primarily through the musicalized version from the 1950s that starred Mary Martin, although the Royal National Theatre’s 1997 production, with Peter played by Daniel Evans, now artistic director of the Chichester Festival, and Ian McKellen as Captain Hook, showed the original is still a viable and glorious work.
But using the luster of great works as a jumping-off point for one’s own is not unknown: Barrie himself did a send-up of Ibsen’s Ghosts back in 1891. Sometimes the result is engaging, as in A Doll’s House, Part 2. Sometimes it isn’t. Sarah Ruhl’s new play, although its title capitalizes on Barrie’s creation and suggests some kind of celebration is being held, puts the original at a further remove.
For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday opens in the 1990s in a hospital room, where a quintet of siblings has gathered around the deathbed of their father. The eldest, Ann (Kathleen Chalfant), busies herself with the New York Times crossword. Two brothers are named John (Daniel Jenkins) and Michael (Keith Reddin), and a sister is named Wendy (Lisa Emery). Leaving aside Ann, who narrates some of the action, those three bear the names of the Darling children in Peter Pan. Meanwhile, brother James (David Chandler) has the Christian name of Captain Hook.
As they are sitting around, the five talk about their lives, and the effect is rather like eavesdropping on the banal conversations from a lifetime of Thanksgiving dinners. In a program note, Ruhl explains: “I wondered if it was possible to write a play about one’s family without it being a ‘family drama’ of the sort that hinges on mudslinging and skeletons in the closet…. Rather than hinging the play structurally on a buried or invented secret, I used a dramatic structure that approximated Japanese Noh drama…. One might imagine this structure as a contemporary Midwestern Noh drama.”
It’s certainly doubtful that any viewer will discern Noh drama in the meandering dialogue or thrill to the academic underpinnings of Ruhl’s experiment—although the actors, with impeccable credentials, adhere to the script’s directive to make the first third feel “unperformed.” Alas, “aimless” might be a better description. One wishes that director Les Waters or the producers had helped curb Ruhl’s impulse.
After interminable chatter extending through a night and the next morning, the old man dies; his spirit rises from the bed, and he walks to the façade of a white clapboard house upstage (the set is by David Zinn), where the inside lights have clicked on. He opens a door, and a dog comes out—a dog that has been mentioned as having been put down. There is, then, a spirit plane and a temporal plane for audiences to keep tabs on.
Much of the dialogue is presumably rooted in Ruhl’s upbringing at 111 McClellan Boulevard in Davenport, Iowa. From the program note one learns that her mother played Peter Pan as a teenager, and Ruhl has drawn on her own family’s dynamics—Catholic upbringing, political strife of left and right (one character refers to President Clinton as Slick Willy), and her mother’s history as a single mom.
Occasionally the jumble of events yields a moment of interest. Shortly after the patriarch has died, Michael says, “Dad, if you’re here, give us a sign,” and the invisible spirit of the father drops a bowl of cereal, which the corporeal characters hear. They, however, regard it as an ironic happenstance and, weirdly, don’t even investigate the noise. Still, it’s one of the best notions in the play: that the spirit world is all around us and we might all be receiving signs that pass unnoticed. On the other hand, Ann, who has long ago abandoned the “bullshit” of her faith, says, “I still take communion to be sociable.” But why would she find herself inside a church to begin with?
Somewhere in Ruhl’s play there may be an interesting meditation on belief—the siblings’ religious faith is either lost or in tatters, although the final segment reenacts the nursery scene in Barrie’s play, tapping into the audience’s memories of a secular childhood belief (renowned from the televised musical) when Tinker Bell must be resurrected. Wendy asks the audience to clap for Peter’s survival, if they believe. Despite the mercenary theft from Peter Pan to engage the audience, one is more likely to be struck by disbelief at the tedious flummery on stage.
Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday runs through Oct. 1 at Playwrights Horizons (416 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 7 p.m. on Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visit playwrightshorizons.org.