Sarah Ruhl is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and a Tony Award nominee. Playwrights Horizons has played host to two of her many play — Stage Kiss and Dead Man’s Cell Phone. Her other works have won favor and one landed the MacArthur “Genius” Award. All of which makes this latest work — For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, directed by Les Waters at Playrwrights Horizons — difficult to comprehend, for it feels like a first work, a crude attempt by a promising playwright to “write what you know.”
In Ruhl’s case, she certainly knows her family, and she’s keenly remembered where they all were in life during the presidency of Bill Clinton, in which she has set this reminiscence. She is one of five siblings, who comprise a quintet of decent people, all raised by the same parents, and all turning out most distinctively as a varied lot. Politically they range from conservative to liberal; two are women, the rest bonded brothers, led by Ann, the oldest. It’s Ann who greets us by stepping from behind the drawn curtain to let us know she will by playing Peter Pan tonight, later in the evening. Before she gets to do that, we are invited to join her as she and her siblings tend to their father, dying of leukemia, in a hospital room. It’s a close family and it’s clear there is much love between them. But as Dad breathes his last, we move into the family home where they mourn his passing with a wake that involves a good deal of drinking to loosen their tongues on any number of subjects including the different attitudes about the world in which they lived under President Clinton. The problem is, as Ruhl writes them, they have no particular distinction, and I felt I was eavesdropping on some very personal, but average dialogue, to which I shouldn’t have been privy. The play is all small talk – expository and personal – not only about them, but other relatives as well. They define each other again and again; one calls their Aunt Helen a political genius, another questions why they should be an example of a functional democracy, another says “This is not a functional democracy. And I’m sick of pretending that it is!”
They talk of their father, or rather they tell us about him. By stating facts that they want us to know about him, we learn that he “lived through the Depression, he ate squirrels, he did pro bono work all the time and never asked for recognition, he grew up dirt poor, he remained a small town lawyer in a town that was too small to need one.”
They drop names. One brother accuses his sister of avoiding all conservative papers — of never reading William Safire or Ann Coulter, which allows her to call Coulter “an idiot,” only to be asked “How do you know if you don’t read her?” And back and forth with more of the same ad infinitum. Later, perhaps two thirds of the way through the 90-minute playing time, the five siblings act out Peter Pan in the Darling’s home in England, and it’s in this penultimate section of the play that everyone grows tired of Neverland, and decides to leave it and return to the real world. Peter is left alone at the final curtain, but he isn’t Peter any more — he’s oldest sister Ann, still dressed in Peter’s clothes, which she’d worn when she was a girl in school. She is now a woman of 70 who still needs to pretend she is young, and lives in Neverland.
The five siblings and their Dad are well played by a lively cast led by the appealing Kathleen Chalfant, who always lights up a stage. Lisa Emery, another actress with a lifetime of good work behind her onstage and in TV films, is game as Wendy, the youngest in the family; and Daniel Jenkins, Keith Reddin, and David Chandler all offer realistic representations of the three brothers. Ron Crawford, who spends the entire first section on Dad’s death bed, plays him as a ghostly presence when he is left alone with his daughter Ann at the play’s end. With little time left for him to register, he manages to be moving. Oh yes, to round out the cast of seven, a dog named Macy pops up now and then, as himself, and as Nana. Macy picked up all his cues, and made us believe he really belonged in this family, peopled by this very nice old man and his children.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday plays through October 1, 2017, at Playwrights Horizons on the Mainstage Theater – 416 West 42nd Street in New York, NY. For tickets, call the box office at (212) 279-4200, or purchase them online.