Having never been a great admirer of Sarah Ruhl’s playwriting, I didn’t find myself as infuriated as others seem to have been by her latest work, For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday, at Playwrights Horizons. It rarely rings false, and it never stumbles over misguided grandiose ambitions. Its main flaw is that, simply, it isn’t very interesting. Five siblings, three male and two female, all highly educated, first await their father’s death in his hospital room, and then, after the event, try to make sense of his life and their own.
The harmless sincerity of this schema can be respected, but Ruhl does very little to delve into the complexities that presumably underlie it. The siblings are politically polarized, along gender lines (females liberal, males neocon), and all but one largely irreligious, but the inevitable recriminations on these topics are confined to a few minor flare-ups, quickly quenched by consensus. (The setting is Davenport, Iowa, during Bill Clinton’s presidency.) All are married or formerly married, with children, but spouses and kids have been left not only offstage but largely out of the onstage conversation, which tends to lapse back into shared childhood memories before spurting forward again into the uncertain and the perfunctory.
It all seems accurate enough; it just never seems enough. Ruhl offers two theatrical devices that seem to want to break the naturalistic frame. Once freed from his hospital deathbed, the father (Ron Crawford) becomes an ambient figure, appearing at arbitrary moments to wander casually in the background while his bereaved offspring converse. At one point, when they half-jokingly ask him to give a sign of his presence, he drops a dish, but I wouldn’t take this isolated instance as conveying that Ruhl believes in psychic phenomena or that her play is about any such thing; it looks more like a symptom of the capricious impulse that seizes playwrights when their writing is uncentered.
Ruhl’s second frame-breaker, adumbrated in her title, is a rather limp final scene in which the five siblings are half-transformed into characters from James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, apparently because Ann (Kathleen Chalfant), the eldest, has a fond memory of having played the title role at a local community theater in 1955, when she was 10. (This makes nonsense of the “70th birthday” reference in the title: Since Clinton’s presidency ran from 1993 to 2001, Ann cannot be over 56.) Some of her younger sibs probably hadn’t even been born at the time; nonetheless, they all crop up, in appropriate modifications of their everyday clothing (costumes by Kristopher Castle) and with the three youngest, like Ann, in flying rig (flying effects by ZFX). Naturally, Jim (David Chandler), the middle child and staunchest conservative, becomes Hook.
But here, too, nothing happens. Perfunctory bits of incident and dialogue from Barrie’s play get muddled with reiterated phrases from earlier scenes of Ruhl’s. The consciousness of one’s own aging that a parent’s death always brings home so forcefully is a guaranteed bring-down of any attempt to fly to what Barrie called The Never Land, but it’s hard to imagine anyone in the audience at Playwrights Horizons who didn’t know that before Ruhl’s characters started repeating the fact over and over. No doubt such a basic home truth bears repetition, but to elaborate it with costume changes and flying apparatus and strenuous efforts at whimsy merely makes the basic truth look all the more threadbare.
No doubt Ruhl meant something serious. She says the play was written for her mother, who, like Ann, had played Peter Pan at age 10. Knowing nothing else of Ruhl’s biography, I have no idea if she has, or if her mother had, four siblings, who in tandem with her would suggest an analogy to the five Llewelyn Davies boys, who when orphaned became Barrie’s wards and inspired him to write Peter Pan in the first place. Or perhaps no such analogy exists, and Ruhl simply gave her heroine four siblings because Barrie had five wards. The Davies boys did not have notably happy lives — the eldest died in combat in World War I, another drowned, and a third took his own life in his early sixties — and their relations with Barrie have been the source of much speculation in fact, fiction, drama, and film. Barrie himself, who had an unrivaled gift for creating fantasies that could rivet the modern consciousness, seems to have been a rather peculiar and repressed man: His one — unconsummated — attempt at marriage ended when his wife ran off with a drama critic, surely a traumatic blow to even the most successful playwright. I have often wondered if the critic recused himself from reviewing Barrie’s subsequent plays.
Ruhl’s script has understandably not given director Les Waters much inspiration. The first scene, in which the five siblings move repeatedly, almost in unison, from stage left to the hospital bed stage right, gets particularly wearisome. But David Zinn’s set shows an elegant ingenuity in transforming the space from hospital to home interior to street scene, and Matt Frey’s lighting supplies a suitably Barrie-ish twilight for the finale. The acting is all good, with Lisa Emery as always the most movingly truthful and Chalfant, as always, the most heroic. I cherish her performance as evidence that age has nothing to do with one’s qualifications to play Peter Pan, or anything else. If Chalfant wants to play Hamlet or Little Orphan Annie tomorrow, that will be fine with me.
For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday
416 West 42nd Street
Through October 1