For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday
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Theater review by Adam Feldman
Sarah Ruhl’s notes in the script of her new play describe it as a “Midwestern Noh drama,” and its 90 minutes are divided into three sections of roughly equal length. In the first, five siblings in their fifties and sixties—the oldest is Ann (the ever-stately Kathleen Chalfant)—gather at the deathbed of their jaundiced father in Iowa, making small talk and waiting for him to die. (Spoiler: It takes a while.) The second part features more talking—the family is now at the dinner table, reminiscing about their childhoods and bickering about 1990s politics—but it is equally free of character and event: Midwestern no drama. The final third, by contrast, finds everyone enacting a kiddie-theater version of Peter Pan, with Ann in full Peter drag, crowing and flying and fighting a foppish Captain Hook (the enjoyably ripe David Chandler). Themes that hover vaguely over the first hour are pounded out in this last section, an anvil of twee.
Hanging behind the play’s long title, For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, is an implicit question: Whom exactly is this for? The literal answer is Ruhl’s mother, for whom she says she wrote the play as a present. That is a commendable gesture, but those outside Ruhl’s immediate family may feel left out of the loop. What begins in gauzy dullness—Ruhl mandates that the first two parts “should feel almost unperformed,” and they do—eventually gets hoisted on a clunky apparatus of symbolism about refusing to grow old. “Everyone, it’s time to kill Captain Hook,” shouts Ann as Peter. “Hook is death! Kill death! Make death die!” The finale trots out familiar stuff about the magic of theater, but no amount of fairy dust and clapping can reanimate a play that never seemed alive to begin with. It’s a waste of the playwright’s gifts, and the audience’s time.
Playwrights Horizons (Off Broadway). By Sarah Ruhl. Directed Les Waters. With Kathleen Chalfant. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission. Through Oct 1.