When Ms. Chalfant emerges from behind the stage curtain and addresses the audience, it seems as though she’s going to deliver the “turn off your cellphone speech.” It very soon becomes clear that she’s in character.
She is Ann, a teacher in her 60’s, reminiscing about when she played Peter Pan in her hometown of Davenport, Iowa in the 1950’s as a teenager. Mary Martin once came through the town and she got her autograph on a picture and it’s a prized possession. Chalfant’s radiance during this wistful reverie make these few minutes the best part of the entire play.
The curtains part and we’re in the Iowa, hospital where Ann’s unconscious, 84-year-old, widowed, physician father George is on his deathbed. Ann is there holding vigil with her younger siblings. They are John, Jim, Michael and Wendy. Their familiar reactions are interspersed with George’s periodic writhing.
Then we’re at the family house where over a lot of glasses of Scotch, family conflicts and 1990’s politics are thrashed out as George’s ghost pops in and out as comic relief. Later on Ann again addresses the audience as she changes into a Peter Pan costume. Tinkerbelle and Captain Hook appear as well, as the siblings act out the plot of Peter Pan. There’s a lot of well-realized flying around on wires.
What this all means is something only Ms. Ruhl knows as the entire dramatic configuration of the play is baffling and sluggish at 90 minutes. We go from a drawn-out dying sequence to a typical brothers and sisters clash that’s all adequately rendered at best. The rehash of J.M. Barrie’s characters is certainly whimsical but doesn’t really parallel the lives of the characters and makes no real impact.
In interviews, Ruhl says she intends this play as a gift to her mother who played Peter Pan in Iowa as a teenager. As noble as this goal is, For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday never coheres into a compelling experience. The character of Ann is fascinating but is embedded in an uninvolving scenario that is perhaps a mediation on aging, death and disillusionment.
The dialogue though, is flavorfully heartfelt with a number of affective passages, particularly one about the death of the family dog that Chalfant delivers beautifully. She has had a long and distinguished career on the New York stage and her stately presence elevates the play considerably.
The talented Lisa Emery, David Chandler, Daniel Jenkins and Keith Reddin are all amiable and forceful in their characterizations as Ann’s siblings to little avail.
Garnering much focus and laughter is Ron Crawford in his virtually silent performance as The Father. Mr. Crawford is able to convey pathos and slyness with his expressive facial features and nimble physicality. Also of special note is Macy, who superbly plays the family dog.
Director Les Waters’ staging admirably copes with visualizing this roundabout material and succeeds as much as possible. The physical placement of the actors is precise, there are fine tableaus and a steady pace. The Neverland detour has charm and is well realized, due to the supreme efforts of fight and fly director Ryan Bourque in collaboration with ZFX, Inc.’s flying effects.
David Zinn’s ingenious scenic design has a smaller-scale version of the family house on view in the hospital scene as the background. Mr. Zinn’s creations swiftly transition from one setting to another that helps add momentum.
The temporal fluctuations and the dimension of fantasy are crisply depicted by Matt Frey’s masterfully eclectic lighting design.
Eerie and celestial tones are the primary features of Bray Poor’s accomplished original music that is heard throughout the production. Mr. Poor’s sound design adeptly blends his score with numerous effects for the desired otherworldly results.
In addition to the the witty and accurate Peter Pan getup, Kristopher Castle’s costume design marvelously recreates the looks of those other immortal figures and provides inspired, everyday clothing for the “real” characters.
There are some lovely moments in For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday but as a whole it’s stillborn.
For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday (through October 1, 2017)
Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater,416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212 279 4200 or visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission