Polishing Rare Gems: J.M. Barrie at The Pearl Theatre

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How it’s New York: The Pearl Theatre is one of New York’s few theatres with a resident company, and a gem itself.
How it’s (Scottish) Irish:  Author J.M. Barrie first wrote in Scots dialect. Did you know that? Yes the very English “Peter Pan” was conceived by a Celt.

When we met with director J.R. Sullivan, artistic director of The Pearl Theatre, the set was being painted for the production of “This Side of Neverland,” a pair of one-acts by J.M. Barrie. The red velvet curtain is a painted drop, as are the backdrops, and there are working footlights.

“It’s part of the conceit,” Sullivan said. The idea is that the artificiality suggests the kind of turn of the century playhouse Scottish playwright Barrie himself would have used. The production replaces the world premiere of Terrence McNally’s play, written for the company, “And Away We Go,” which has been postponed until next season to be part of The Pearl’s 30th-year anniversary.

The plays run from April 19 through May 19 (with the official opening on May 5) at The Pearl in its new home, as of this past October, at 555 W. 42nd Street.

Literary manager and artistic assistant Kate Farrington brought “The Twelve Pound Look” and “Rosalind” to Sullivan’s attention.

Barrie’s play “Mary Rose” was produced by The Vineyard theatre in 2007, and Red Bull Theatre recently presented a reading of “Admiral Crichton,” but he hasn’t had a true revival in a long time.

Most people are familiar with Barrie as the author of “Peter Pan.” Fewer people know that Barrie, who lived from 1860 to 1937, wrote his first works in Scottish dialect. Those who haven’t read his plays and novels miss the wry, sweet insight of his prose: see this in Chapter 1 of “Peter Pan,” for example:

“The way Mr. Darling won her was this: the many gentlemen who had been boys when she was a girl discovered simultaneously that they loved her, and they all ran to her house to propose to her except Mr. Darling, who took a cab and nipped in first, and so he got her.”

Sean McNall, @Al Foote III

Sean McNall, @Al Foote III

For a much better prequel to “Peter Pan” than “Peter and the Starcatcher,” see Barrie’s own “The Little White Bird.”

To put some of that wit onstage at The Pearl, these productions feature Barrie introducing the plays, reading from stage directions. Director Tina Landau also had stage directions read aloud at the Vineyard. In “Rosalind,” a young man discovers a surprise about the woman he’s courting. In “The Twelve Pound Look,” a man about to be knighted discovers the temp who comes to do typing is his ex-wife. Both plays, Sullivan said, explore the imaginative vitality of youth and its value is not something to trade off for material gain and success which may “lend comfort but limit the fullness of life.” Barrie says in “Rosalind,” and it’s also on the show poster, “Everything is real – except middle age.”

These themes, of course, also inform “Peter Pan.”

The Pearl Theatre not only focuses on classic plays, but is also one of the few companies around with a real resident company. The teams of one-acts feature Carole Schultz, Rachel Botchan, Sean Mcnall, Bradford Cover, and Varishnavi Sharma.

“Classic work is complicated, and often very dense in the text. Rehearsal schedules are limited, never more than a month. You gain time by a company of actors that know each other well,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan joined the company as artistic director in 2009, and among the plays he’s directed are “Importance of Being Earnest;” which I reviewed for The OScholars, “Playboy of the Western World,” which I reviewed for Back Stage, and “A Moon for the Misbegotten.”.

Barrie, Sullivan said, had a keen social conscience. His strong female characters are an important

Sean McNall, Rachel Botchan @Al Foote III

Sean McNall, Rachel Botchan @Al Foote III

aspect of his work as well.

“The men learn from the women about better, truer, richer process of life,” he said. It’s true of “Peter Pan” too: the lost boys learn a lot from Wendy.

And the plays surprised and delighted him by how well-made they are, how the action rises to a climax and resolves, and how naturally they fit the stage. “That’s the kind of play that was the norm in his time,” he said. There are less of those right now.

Calling the pairings “This side of Neverland,” suggests that the plays are the “closer side of Neverland,” Sullivan said.

It’s in our world, but has echoes of that other one.

“This Side of Neverland” runs at the Pearl Theatre through May 19.

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Copyright 2013 New York Irish Arts