… beyond Peter Pan …
Best known now for Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie was a popular playwright in early 20th-century London and here’s a chance to see two of his witty and enjoyable comedies — about grown-ups.
The first of these, Rosalind, is a real gem. A beautiful, popular actress has donned a shapeless housedress and floppy slippers, and lets her hair go, holed up in a rural boarding house where she takes on the persona of her own mother just to get away from it all, to find respite from her frenetic London life where she’s relentlessly the center of attention.
Having happily loosened her stays, she bothers to chat with no one except the amiable, ordinary owner of her boarding house, until coincidence draws to the boarding house one of her adoring London swains, an upper class recent university graduate. Over the course of a revelatory conversation, he discovers that this frumpy, pleasant 40-year old he’s talking with is not the mother of the glorious young actress he fancies himself in love with but very the actress herself, whom he’s failed to recognize under her housecoat. As she plays it for all it’s worth, he scrambles to figure out what to do with his ardor? Be true to the 40-year old? Or to his 23-year old self? He believes in love. He wants to do the right thing. And what will happen when a telegram arrives offering the actress the role of Rosalind in As You Like It?
One thing is sure: there will be a stunning transformation of a 40-year old frump into a dazzling 20-something … well, she’s actually 29: Barrie takes care to keep the play totally plausible.
Rachel Botchan is enchanting as the dowdy “mother” and equally so as the glamorous young actress — she’s so amused, so in control — and her transformation from old and plain to young and glamorous (Miss Botchan looks beautiful both ways) is a powerful reminder, as Barrie surely intended it, of the joys and ironies of appearance and illusion. I’ve seen Miss Botcham is several roles — she’s always compelling but here she’s a wonder. Sean McNall brings his own amused charm to the double part of playwright Barrie moving in and out of the play and the young man in love. As the boarding house owner, Carol Schultz is a solid foil of middle-aged realism for the actress whose life is a bouquet of possibilities — even at the “advanced age” of 29.
In the second play, The Twelve Pound Look, Sir Harry is about to be knighted, and both he and his wife, who is heavily loaded with bling, are delighted at the prospect. Kate, a typist arrives to prepare his “thank you” letters and it turns out that she, through coincidence, is Sir Harry’s former wife, who’d left him years before.
Sir Harry is one of those men who cannot grasp why any woman upon whom he’s lavished everything costly, including his high position, would leave him (I wondered about it, too), but nevertheless he’s assumed all along that she left him for another man. Who was he? is the imperious question repeated in Harry’s accustomed-to-answers voice. With some amusing game playing, the truth is revealed — she left Sir Harry not for a man but for a typewriter, cost 12 pounds, or more truly, she left him for the independence of making her own living. It could happen. But in this play it doesn’t ring true.
The Twelve Pound Look is nearer to farce than Rosalind. This is not A Doll’s House, though it comes thirty years later than Ibsen’s iconic play of a married woman struggling for independence. Still, The Twelve Pound Look is entertaining, and good to know about. And the episode in which Sir Harry, before the adoring eyes of his wife, practices his moves for the ceremony of Knighthood is one of the great comic scenes, performed with flawless timing and wit by Bradford Cover. Rachel Botchan — in another of her evening’s magic transformations — is appropriately peppery as Harry’s liberated ex-wife. And Sean McNall, in the role of J. M. Barrie on-stage, conveys an author’s ironic distance and insight, while playing also a punctilious butler.
Live piano with tunes like “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” performed by Carol Schultz, send us pleasantly to the past. And, for its own touch of the past, a stage curtain is used in This Side of Neverland. I love the immediacy of current plays with stages open to the audience but the curtain opening onto that other world of the imagination is a pleasure of its own.
This Side of Neverland plays at The Pearl Theatre on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through May 19th now extended through May 26th.