Peter Pan Finally Gets Off the Runway

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

photo by Joan Marcus

What can you write about a play that was absolutely dreadful during its first two thirds and absolutely wonderful during its final third?

That’s For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday, by Sarah Ruhl, that just opened at Playwright’s Horizon, on W. 42d Street, in New York. The first sixty minutes drone on relentlessly, as if there were a contest to put people to sleep, and the last thirty minutes delivers theatrical brilliance that you will never forget.

Sarah Ruhl wrote the play, set in the 1990s, for her mom on her 70th birthday. Her mom played Peter Pan in Davenport, Iowa, as a teenager and even got to meet actress Mary Martin, the most famous Peter Pan of them all. Ruhl read that the man who gave the world the Lost Boys, dueled with Captain Hook, flew over the rooftops of London, paraded around Neverland with Tiger Lily and saved the life of little Tinker Bell, J. M. Barrie, used five of his friends as models for the characters in the play, written in 1904. Ms. Ruhl then used members of her own family to do the same. In the play, she had all of the clan gathered around their dying Dad and then mourn his loss at a wake. In the middle of all that, the brothers and sisters fight and feud and get themselves involved in an endless and hopeless discussion about politics in the Bush and Clinton years (and even back to the ‘60s). All of this is perfectly inane (they also break out into songs for no discernible reason). It makes you want to just scream.

Then, with just a slight turn of the head, the oldest daughter, Ann, puts on mom’s dusty old Peter Pan costume and they all tumble and stumble into the Darling household at the turn of the nineteenth century London and assume the roles of the children, Peter, and, Oh My God!, the evil, dastardly, corrupt, fiendish and thoroughly villainous Captain Hook.

Pure theatrical beauty follows. In that last third of the play, Ms. Ruhl creates Neverland all over again and takes us by the hand and helps us fly around it. We are there with the Darling children – all grown now -- and face the motley pirate crew of Hook.

The Darling kids and Peter all fly (doesn’t everybody?). ZFX, Inc. staged the flying sequences and they are gorgeous. The kids, and especially Peter, soar back and forth above the stage in a scene that is as good as any I have seen. These folks zip through the air like an American Airlines plane on its way up from JFK airport in New York. That thirty minutes is just spectacular.

Why didn’t Ruhl stick with it? I don’t want to give the plot away, but she discusses the idea that because Peter, in this story, grew up he lost some of his powers. Why not make that the entire play? Have the gang fly back to Neverland as senior citizens and see what happens?

For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday is really worth it just for those last thirty minutes. I sat there and I was a little kid again, ready to chase Mr. Smee across the beach, take a shot at Captain Hook, wrap my arms around Tinker Bell and make sure Wendy gets back for spring cleaning.

The director, Les Waters, and the actors did a good job with the script, but the script is problematical. There is a dog that wanders in and out of the play, for no reason, and he was the most interesting part of the first 60 minutes. The wake is full of silly stories and really bad jokes and they don’t even let you watch the Notre Dame football game that is on TV in the play. The deceased father rambles about the stage too, having no idea what he is supposed to do.

The actors are good. Stage veteran Kathleen Chalfant is just wonderful as Ann. Other fine performances are turned in by Daniel Jenkins as John, Keith Reddin as Michael, David Chandler as Jim, Lisa Emery as Wendy and Ron Crawford as the Dad. Macy plays the dog and is quite good.

But why yet another play about Peter Pan, the world’s most famous boy (even if he crows a bit)?

Peter is a cultural and historical miracle. He was created by Barrie as part of a book in 1902 and then given his own book in 1906. He appeared in play first in 1904 and since then has been the central character in numerous plays, movies, television specials and television series. There are at least twenty statues of him around the world. He is his own jar of peanut butter and a New York bus company. What is it about Peter that has fascinated people for 115 years?

Just about everybody loves him, but a few critics note that he is a psychological mess. He is a boy who is always played by a girl, never ages past twelve, has no family, can’t find his shadow, has a deep need to confront authority figures and is and is not attracted to the lovely Wendy. For decades, critics have suggested that Peter needs to see a therapist. In this play, someone says he should be sent to Karl Jung.

Me? I just love Peter Pan to death, psychological troubles and all. Psychologists? Send him to Dr. Phil and let’s get back to fighting the pirates…

PRODUCTION: Scenic Design: David Zinn, Costumes: Kristopher Castle, Lighting: Matt Frey, Sound Design: Bray Poor and Charles Coes, Flying Effects, ZFX Inc. The play is directed by Les Waters. It runs through October 1.

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