8. Review of THIS SIDE OF NEVERLAND (May 16, 2013)
The Scottish writer, James M. Barrie (1860-1937), of course, will be eternally remembered as the author of PETER PAN, the story of a boy who wouldn’t grow up. Barrie also dramatized that book; before it became an animated movie, a musical, and whatever else, it was one of the most popular plays in the world. Despite its whimsical subject matter, the play has been recognized as well for its social allegorical themes. It was only one of many plays Barrie wrote, all of them having interesting thematic topics, and some enjoying considerable success. Among his plays was a number of one-acts, two of which—“ROSALIND” and “THE TWELVE-POUND LOOK”—have been chosen for revival by the Pearl Theatre (on W. 42nd Street near 11th Avenue), devoted to staging plays from the classics. On the other hand, if these two plays from 1914 are considered “classics,” that word needs to be stretched a bit to make room for them. Still, they once were popular in amateur groups and also received a number of important professional revivals, including one of “THE TWELVE-POUND LOOK” starring the great American actress Helen Hayes in a 1952 TV version.
The Pearl’s productions are generally faithful to the original plays. Its resident company is made up of quite competent actors, few of them especially memorable but all of them well-spoken and theatrically efficient. When you go to the Pearl you know you’ll see a decent rendering of an important play, but it will be more like a quality educational experience than a thrilling evening with path-breaking directorial insights or acting breakthroughs. And such is the case with the two plays being produced under the rubric of THIS SIDE OF NEVERLAND. Director J.R. Sullivan’s only unusual choice (actually, not so unusual as others have done it recently as well) is having actor Sean McNall read some of Barrie’s often charming stage directions as if he were Barrie himself. It’s a bit intrusive but it does add some theatrical flavor to the proceedings.
Sullivan’s staging attempts to be true to the period; it even recreates the ambiance of an Edwardian theatre, with a costumed female pianist (Carol Schultz) downstage right below the false proscenium playing popular old songs before the curtain rises and during the intermission. The audience is invited to get in the mood by singing such chestnuts as “A Bicycle Built for Two,” “After the Ball” (coincidentally being given a superb interpretation across town in THE GIRL I LEFT BEHIND ME), “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and so on. I couldn’t resist singing along (everyone gets a copy of the lyrics).
Interestingly, both of these one-acts have feminist themes that still have some slight relevance, a hundred years after they were written. “ROSALIND”(named for the leading female character in Shakespeare’s AS YOU LIKE IT) is about an actress named Mrs. Page (Rachel Botchan) who passes herself off professionally as nearly twenty years younger than she is. While vacationing at a country inn, she abandons all attempts at glamour and pretends to be her own mother. Charles (Sean McNall), a callow youth in love with the actress, whom he believes to be 23-years-old, happens by during a storm and accepts the story that the dowdy woman is his idol’s mother. The truth is ultimately revealed, the actress changes into her glamorous clothes, and the two depart for London together. Mrs. Page’s complaint about how difficult it is for actresses to get the roles of middle-aged women (between the ages of 29 and 60) and her own need to keep the public thinking her younger than she is rings a very contemporary bell.
The performance might have registered more effectively if—in the attempt to make her look frumpy in a housedress—Ms. Botchan weren’t saddled with one of the least attractive and poorest-fitting costumes I’ve ever seen. Her physical behavior is completely out of period even though it is meant to suggest a woman who abandons her social graces when out of the public eye. For example, no self-respecting woman in 1914, especially a famous actress, would sit with her legs crossed, especially with an ankle resting on her opposite knee.
In “THE TWELVE-POUND LOOK,” Sir Harry Sims (Bradford Cover), a stuffy, self-satisfied, British businessman preoccupied with his own success, prepares to be knighted by rehearsing with his beautiful, bejeweled wife, Lady Sims (Vaishnavi Sharma), all the ceremonial moves he will have to perform. A woman, Kate (Rachel Botchan), hired to type Sir Harry’s thank you notes, turns out to be the wife he divorced years earlier when he believed her to be having an affair. She reveals she never had an affair but just wanted out from a relationship in which her husband paid her no attention while making his personal success his primary goal. She may not have the jewels and money of the present Lady Sims, but she is much happier in her state of independence, a revelation that only frustrates even more her uncomprehending boor of an ex-husband. Kate, in fact, resembles a latter-day Nora from Ibsen’s A DOLL’S HOUSE, which may not be too far a stretch, since earlier in his career Barrie actually wrote parodies of Ibsen’s HEDDA GABLER and GHOSTS.
Mr. Cover’s Sir Harry, while capturing a believable British accent, nonetheless expresses himself with too many obviously modern American gestures to be fully convincing. Ms. Botchan does much better by Kate than as the less well written Mrs. Page, and shows much promise. (Her name intrigues me; there’s a famous Japanese novel called BOTCHAN, whose meaning is something like “boy,” or “sonny.”)
Gary Levinson’s sets are adequate but lacking in professional polish. The tape used to cover joints in the false proscenium is visible through the paint, the fireplace at which characters warm themselves in “ROSALIND” makes no attempt at all to suggest a fire, and a roll-up curtain got stuck during the curtain calls. Elise M. VanderKley’s costumes are period-appropriate but little more, and I still can’t shake the memory of that ugly housedress in “ROSALIND.”
THIS SIDE OF NEVERLAND, while often appealing, is just this side of being a success.