Now playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Broadway.
Swamped by a deluge of freelance work plus a family visit (which was delightful, of course), it’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to finish writing about this play. But honestly, there’s probably more at work in my tardiness than that standard excuse of not enough time. The fact is that I’ve never known quite what to make of the whole Peter Pan myth, which Peter and the Starcatcher freely adapts, so how am I ever to write about it?
As far as I can tell, the Peter archetype is an indulgent romanticization of a particularly boys-will-be-boys sort of childhood, not innocent so much as amoral, selfish and bullying and callous and cliquish and arrogant. If that were the point, I guess I would admire how coolly the tales depicts just how cruelly narcissistic children can be, but instead, the Peter Pan stories typically take on a strangely nostalgic sheen, and I just don’t get it. I don’t. I often enjoy the world-building—the pirates and mermaids, Hook and Tiger Lily—but Peter himself never resonates with me. He leaves me cold.
So perhaps inevitably, Peter and the Starcatcher works much the same way. The production and stagecraft are charmingly imaginative. The many allusions to Barrie’s work are fun and cheeky, and most of the performances are so spiritedly energetic as to be irresistible. But in the end, it all comes down to the irritating Peter and his dramatic arc, which is emotionally unfathomable to me. So what do I say but that I suspect the problem may be as much with me as anything else?
The play, Rick Elice’s adaptation of a children’s novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, re-imagines the origins of Peter Pan. In this telling, a much-abused, nameless orphan boy (Adam Chanler-Berat) gets mixed up with the precocious Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger), daughter of a Starcatcher—and herself a Starcatcher in training—who has been tasked with disposing of a chest full of magical, far-too-powerful starstuff before any villains get their hands on it. But their ship is captured by the gregarious pirate Black Stache (Matthew Saldívar) before it reaches its destination, and everyone ends up shipwrecked on a tropical isle.
You can probably see where this is going. The petulant boy is destined to become Peter Pan, Black Stache is fated to become Captain Hook, the island will become home to mermaids and savages, and poor Molly is doomed to disappointment for the crime of expecting people to live up to their responsibilities and, you know, grow up. OK, so that last bit is kind of a cheap shot. Starcatcher does give the inevitable denouement more nuance than that, but the inevitability of the thing is still disheartening. (Though if I’m going to be completely honest, I was actually relieved that Molly got to be the Wendy character. I was half-afraid she was going to end up shackled in fairy form as Tinker Bell—a much uglier fate.)
The script is a strange, garishly colored work, but the way it manifests on stage, under the direction of Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, is enchanting. The dozen actors constantly slip from one character to another, and in and out of a sort of narrative (almost Greek!) chorus, all with a virtually manic energy on a stage bare but for a few key, multipurpose props. It is, in other words, the kind of production that demands imagination from its audience but helpfully provides a feast to feed it. And some moments truly are magical—especially once the whole crew arrives on the island and the lights and colors and music all conspire to create an eerie beauty, a world touched by that troublesome but lovely starstuff.
As the irrepressible Molly, Keenan-Bolger is saddled with much of the exposition about the starstuff, but she projects such guileless enthusiasm and dogged resourcefulness that in never bogs down. The same cannot be said for Chanler-Berat’s Peter, who is an utter energy-suck for much of the play. Part of the problem may be the script, which makes much of the misery of Peter’s existence. It’s not enough that he’s been so degraded and abused that he literally cannot remember his own name; he’s also been sold into slavery to be given as a gift to a ferocious islander who will sacrifice him the gods or some such. On the one hand, that’s ridiculous, but on the other, Chanler-Berat plays it absolutely straight. His sulky realism is all the odder when juxtaposed with Saldívar’s gleeful mugging as the fourth-wall-breaking Black Stache. Chanler-Berat might be a buzzkill (I seriously got flashes of Rachel Dratch’s Debbie Downer), but Saldívar isn’t taking a damn thing seriously, and he’s hilarious, if sometimes too blatant in demanding that you find him just that.
Frankly, it’s all a bit weird and overeager, the whole thing, but it’s fun even so. The unabashed theatricality is endearing, and the idea of starstuff yields some expected pleasures, like the goofy provenance of the island’s mermaids. Molly might be even more of a predictable archetype that Peter himself, but Keenan-Bolger redeems the character with a resolutely non-pixie-like quirkiness, and you’d have to be completely humorless not to at least crack a grin at Saldívar’s insatiable scenery-chewing.
And Peter—oh hell, I don’t know. By the end of the play, the previously nameless orphan boy is, indeed, the familiar Peter Pan. I still don’t know what to make of the kid, but perhaps you’re fonder of him than I.