In plays like “Stage Kiss” and “The Clean House,” Sarah Ruhl has established herself as a playwright capable of injecting the fantastical into the mundane, of bringing a kind of magic realism to kitchen-sink dramas.
Her promising but underwritten new play, “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday,” which opened Wednesday at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, starts out as a memory play. A 70-year-old woman named Ann (Kathleen Chalfant) recounts her experience playing Peter Pan on stage as a child in 1940s Davenport, Iowa — and meeting famed actress Mary Martin, who made the role famous. (Ann was inspired by Ruhl’s own mother.)
We then meet Ann’s four siblings as they attend the last days of their dying father (Ron Crawford) — and discuss matters of aging, mortality and the afterlife (or lack thereof).
By the end, the siblings are transported back to Neverland — complete with flying apparatuses — in their very much grown-up bodies, with all the attendant aches and pains.
The indomitable Kathleen Chalfant delivers a stolid performance as Ann, particularly in her monologues in front of the curtain.
But even at 90 intermission-less minutes, Ruhl’s play is a very long sit. Under the direction of Les Waters, the production has some lovely well-observed moments, but no real propulsive drive.
The five siblings emerge less as characters than as mouthpieces for slightly different stances on politics or the value of religion (two of the brothers are physicians who watch a lot of Fox News, while the two sisters veered toward the arts and avoiding discord). They’re really just too nice, in that fundamental Midwestern way that shuts down arguments the moment they start to percolate, to sustain any kind of dramatic tension.
You may prefer to emulate Ann and her family, but as a theatergoer you’ll prefer spending time with the likes of the Westons of Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” — another Midwestern clan drawn together by crisis who find themselves tearing each other apart before recognizing their commonalities.
Ruhl has sketched the broad outlines of characters here, gathering a handful of ideas and themes that are still in need of a structure to bind them in place. Tossing a little fairy dust just won’t do the trick.