By all appearances, For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday should be a smash. The star is the versatile Kathleen Chalfont. The playwright is MacArthur “genius” Award winner Sarah Ruhl. And at its heart is the universal struggle or how and when we grow up. Yet somehow it all comes up slacker than a broken aerial wire. This work was intended to honor Ruhl’s mother and the rest of us are challenged to understand the point of it all.
The “adventure” begins in a bleak hospital room in which five siblings have gathered at their father’s deathbed. The scene is very long and a particularly tough test in an age when binge-watching has become the norm. It would be artistically daring if only the conversation did more to enlighten us about the family. Instead it’s likely to leave you as fidgety as if you were sitting in an actual waiting room. While the pacing improves from there, the revelation level does not. There’s a worn-out exchange of political views, a cliched examination of birth and pecking order, and a unfulfilled thread about life after death. On occasion the characters share a story that is so unlikely to be forgotten by those involved it is obviously for our benefit. It’s as if Ms. Ruhl wrote some ideas on index cards, shuffled them, and then forgot to put any meat on the bones. The script may fit her ideal of theater as poetry, but it isn’t particularly expressive or even interesting.
Initially, David Zinn’s set seems artistic and magical, but it just keeps getting in the actors’ way. Equipment is hard to use while simultaneously delivering dialogue in a meaningful manner. Pieces of the first scene remain in view for the rest of the act, yet serve no purpose. Worst of all, the inside of the house is placed outside of the house, which seems intriguing until the Obie winning director Les Waters’ staging grows awkward and then confusing.
At the center of all this muck, the actors perform like troopers. The show’s highlight is Chalfont as birthday girl Ann addressing the audience as one from Iowa in the 1990s. She is instantly engaging, sincerely reflectively, and almost completely wasted in this role. The standouts in her supporting cast is the always remarkable Lisa Emery as Wendy in both her own story and the one that takes place in Neverland. David Chandler doing double duty as brother Jim and nemesis Captain Hook (and maybe death?) supplies some laughs in Act II. And kudos to Macy the adopted dog making her New York theatrical debut while generating an “aaaaw” or two.
If you are a devoted fan of Ruhl and want to be able to say you’ve seen all of her work, get yourself a seat. For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday is scheduled to play through October 1. Playwrights Horizons (https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/peter-pan-her-70th-birthday/) has many loyal subscribers, but there are seats available through some of the usual discount channels. Runtime is 90 minutes.