Peter and the Starcatcher

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?

Monet’s Garden

Special exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden through October 21.

It never occurred to me to wonder about all the flowers Claude Monet painted, and in retrospect, that seems like a real failure of imagination. Surely the artist's affinity for florals was worth pondering. How could I have gazed at the massive Water Lilies triptych at the MoMA some six, seven, eight times and never once reflected on where an elderly turn-of-the-century Frenchman might have found a massive Japanese-style water garden to paint?

The explanation, as it turns out, is that Monet himself created his splendid gardens at Giverny—one in a traditional French style, the other inspired by Japanese water gardens—and used them not only as subjects for his paintings but also as creative media in their own right, experimenting with different color combinations and varieties to stunning effect. Much of what he wrote indicates that he thought of himself as a gardener as much of a painter and considered his gardens some of his greatest work.

The New York Botanical Garden's exhibit on Monet's gardens seeks to celebrate the eminent painter's perhaps underappreciated genius as a gardener, re-creating his "paint box" flowerbeds, his use of wildflowers alongside more cultivated species, his iconic Japanese footbridge, and, of course, his dramatic pools of water lilies. The result is tantalizing—no doubt an exceedingly poor substitute for Giverny itself but a lovely botanical experience even so.

Potted Potter

Now playing at the Little Shubert Theatre off-Broadway.

More than a decade has passed since I saw The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), but I remember the madcap play with great fondness. It's incredibly silly, of course—as any compression of several dozen works into a single production put on by just three actors on a bare-bones stage is bound to be—but it's also clever and inventive (Titus Andronicus as a cooking show—ha!), and it demonstrates real knowledge of and affection for Shakespeare's oeuvre. Complete might wear its learning lightly, but you're bound to get more out of it if you know how grotesque Titus really is, and how a Freudian reading of Hamlet works, and how the same elements really do pop up over and over again in the comedies.

Anyway, I thought of Complete when a visiting family member suggested we check out Potted Potter, which purports to cover all seven Harry Potter books in under seventy minutes. I guess I assumed it would be the same kind of thing: silly but entertaining for anyone who knows the books well (and yes, I know the books well—I'm the kind of person who happily absorbs every detail of that kind of world-building saga) and maybe even insightful on occasional. I didn't think that was too much to expect.

Sadly, it was—which still puzzles me. After all, Rowling's work is considerably more accessible than Shakespeare's, and its familiar conventions and goofy names and endearing foibles are ripe for parody (I say that with all affection). Yet unlike their more scholarly predecessors, Dan Clarkson and Jeff Turner, the writer-performers of Potted Potter, don't seem to understand that parody can't be free-floating; it must be attached to something. The target matters. Simply mugging about and changing from one dumb costume to another might be mildly amusing if your audience is feeling generous, but it hardly rises to the level of satire. Perhaps I was foolish to have expected more, but I did, and I was sorely disappointed.

The Imposter

In theaters.

The story at the heart of The Imposter is one of those true stories that would never fly as fiction. It's too open-ended, too outrageous, too unbelievable. Watching the documentary, you have to keep reminding yourself that this really happened, that scoffing about how none of it makes any sense doesn't actually make sense under the circumstances. Director Bart Layton presents everything coolly and clearly, but human irrationally simply can't be rationalized in any satisfying way, making The Imposter an impressive but frustrating, bewildering experience.

Into the Woods

Presented by the Public Theater in Central Park, on Thursday, August 2.

Into the Woods is often described as Stephen Sondheim's most accessible musical, and it probably is, but it absolutely is not as lightly pleasant and innocuous as that label might suggest. For starters, Sondheim's mash-up of familiar fairy tales—with a book by James Lapine—uses the dark Grimm accounts of the stories, not bright Disnified versions, so Cinderella's stepmother, for example, actually mutilates her daughters' feet to try to squeeze them into the slipper and Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother insists that they sew stones into the disemboweled wolf's belly to add to his torment. It's creepy.

But even beyond that, Sondheim and Lapine are more interested in the implications of the tales then the stories themselves—the passage from innocence to experience, the relationship between parent and child, the questionable good fortune of having a wish come true—and they probe those issues with good humor but absolutely no sentimentality. Into the Woods is clever and charming and funny, yes, but also disturbing and bloody and sad. The content is accessible, and perhaps some of the songs as well (though Sondheim's meandering, pattery tunes may be something of an acquired taste), but the themes are uncompromising—which is one of the things that makes Into the Woods such a great musical in the first place.

I honestly think director Timothy Sheader gets that. His elaborate production for Shakespeare(/Sondheim) in the Park is nothing if not ambitious, a genuine attempt to engage with the ideas in the text and find a new spin on them. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work, and the sheer busy-ness of the thing is a distraction, but it's interesting, and it features some very good performances. And ultimately, it's an opportunity to hear "I Know Things Now" and "Agony" and "Moments in the Wood" and "Last Midnight" and "Children Will Listen"—songs I adore, songs for which I know every lyric by heart—and for that, well, I can forgive a lot of awkwardness.

The Dark Knight Rises

In theaters.

It's difficult to think sensibly about director Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. Despite the sometime jumbled action sequences, they get under your skin in a truly unsettling way. The villains are charismatic, the setting is often unbearably bleak, the plots play on powerful contemporary fears, and the hero's vigilantism is genuinely disconcerting (and, indeed, acknowledged to be, even within the movies themselves). Furthermore, Batman BeginsThe Dark Knight, and now, closing out the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises all feature just enough intellectual provocation to capture the imagination and more than enough visceral triggers to send that imagination into overdrive. I certainly don't love the movies, but I'm sort of in awe of them. Rarely do you see a summer popcorn flick that delves quite so deeply and persistently into the unconscious.

Orpheus and Eurydice

The Paris Opera Ballet at the Lincoln Center Festival on Saturday, July 21.

In Camus's The Plague, two characters attend a performance of Gluck's opera Orpheus and Eurydice during the height of the epidemic, and the singer playing Orpheus falls violently ill. Panicked, the audience stampedes for the exits—and the novel definitely seems a bit contemptuous of their dawning horror, suggesting that they were blinkered and weak in their escapism, that it was fitting that their fairy tales of snatching loved ones from death had been torn away.

I read The Plague years ago, but I remember being thoroughly annoyed with Camus for that scene. Didn't he realize that the myth of Orpheus is about the futility of trying to thwart death? Perhaps the people were drawn to the opera because it helped them accept mortality and find beauty in a finite life. How was that so wrong? Of course, after bitching self-righteously on these points, I learned that Camus had it right: Traditional myths be damned, Gluck's opera ends with Eurydice being to returned to life one last time, even after Orpheus turns back to look at her, so my indignation was entirely misdirected.

I hadn't thought about that rather embarrassing episode in my literary education for ages, but the late choreographer Pina Bausch's staging brought it back to me. Dark and eerie and grim from beginning to end, the production actually cuts half of the final act: After Orpheus's agonizing lamentation for the dead-again Eurydice, the musicians return to the Furies' themes from Act II, and not only does Eurydice stay dead but Orpheus himself dies also—no deus ex machina happy endings in sight. This, I thought, was an Orpheus even Camus would have to respect.