Playwrights, like actors, can be critics’ darlings. Sarah Ruhl is definitely one, although not every critic agrees with the tag. I was delighted with her comedy In the Next Room, or the vibrator play after having a positive reaction to The Clean House and her intimate Three Sisters adaptation. But I didn’t, however, jump giddily on the bandwagon following Eurydice, Stage Kiss, Dead Man’s Cell Phone and, most recently, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage. They struck me as abstruse and pretentious.
Which is why I was relieved almost immediately when Playwrights Horizons’ production of Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday began (she often eschews capital letters in her titles). In reading the program note, I learned that the play is autobiographical: her own mother played the title role in the original J.M. Barrie play when young, and she was even photographed with the legendary Peter Pan portrayer Mary Martin. This time, I figured, Ruhl is immersing in down-to-earth family reminiscences.
Yes, it’s a family of five Iowa siblings — Ann (Kathleen Chalfant), John (Daniel Jenkins), Michael (Keith Reddin), Jim (David Chandler) and Wendy (Lisa Emery) — gathered at the bedside of their dying father (Ron Crawford). It’s the 1990s, and there’s a passing reference to “Slick Willie” Bill Clinton and heated chat about the difficulty they’ve had as a family debating politics over the years. The manner in which Ruhl records their behavior — Michael and Jim being doctors tending to their own father — has such quiet humanity that the scene is as affecting as any deathbed-watch scene I’ve witnessed. The understanding way in which the five treat each other builds to a beautifully observed sadness that would move all but the stoniest hearts. When Wendy begins to sing “The Water Is Wide,” Ruhl cannily inserts an emotional quantum jump into her piece. This is a family that stays together because its Catholic members so naturally pray together.
But now to the program explanation again. Ruhl also explains that she’s long been impressed with three-part Japanese Noh plays and thus constructed this affectionate tribute to her high-flying mom in three parts. The first part, during which the patriarch not only dies as expected but gets out of the bed and joins the proceedings for a while, is close to perfect.
In parts two and three, Ruhl’s major thematic intentions are introduced and reiterated. In the second part, the brothers and sisters sit and drink at the dinner table on David Zinn’s serviceable set with, upstage, much of a welcoming white clapboard house visible. There, as they range across subjects relating to family recollections and politics, Ruhl slowly loses her once-firm grip. As their father’s ghost repeatedly wanders around, the conversational rambling reaches a dry patch. Then — phew! — it picks up again as the guzzling intensifies and the siblings land on the playwright’s prize topic.
Which is? “Peter Pan” in the title should be a clue, but I didn’t notice that Wendy, Michael and John are Barrie’s names for the Darling children. (Ann rhymes with Pan, but maybe that’s a stretch. Brother Jim? Must be thrown in for good measure.)
So Ann, Wendy, Michael, John and Jim attack growing up. As they descend, and not unpleasantly, into their cups, they quiz each other about the moment they each realized they’d grown up. Their iterations are worth hearing and cumulatively serve Ruhl’s obvious purpose: to provoke us into thinking about our own growing-up moment — if it ever happened.
The first two parts then yield to the third part, which the playwright may regard as icing on her mother’s birthday cake. But with her dwelling on Noh tradition, is homage the result? Or is this a messy “No” play?
In part three, Ann spots a trunk that her ghost dad has pushed in from the wings. In it, she finds much of her stored Peter Pan costume — she strips down to green tights, plus a stick that is hung with a glowing Tinkerbell bauble. At which point she and the adult Wendy, Michael and John, performing as Barrie’s Wendy, Michael and John, romp warily through a skewed version of the classic children’s play. As they try to think happy thoughts that will enable them to fly, there is actual stage flying (courtesy of ZFX Flying Effects). Jim shows up as Captain Hook, and then a seventh cast member, Macy the dog, lopes on in a lacy cap as Nana.
Ruhl’s caper, though, is ultimately uneven and immature. For one thing, the demands put on the actors for pretending to be children are unfair. If premier actors like Chalfant, Emery, Reddin and Jenkins can’t bring this assignment off, then no one could. Roses to them for trying, though.
Andre Malraux claimed that he’d never met a man who matured. Certainly, with For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday, Ruhl concentrates maturity as one of life’s greatest challenges, and she gets it one-third right. She still has lots or room to crow. Er, grow.