How it’s New York: The Pearl Theatre is a New York institution: its mission is the classics, and it has a resident company, making it old-school New
York theatre, too.
How it’s (Scottish) Irish: J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, was a Scot who wrote early works in broad Scots dialect. The understated wry humor mixed with sweetness is sheer Scottishness. The whimsy is all his own.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers both for “Rosalind” and for “The Twelve-Pound Look.”
The plays are witty, well-acted, with some delicious hamminess. They are even a little subversive. Kudos to director J.R. Sullivan for bringing these whimsical explorations of identity and love to the stage.
HERE BE SPOILERS
Even before the two plays that make up This Side of Neverland, running at The Pearl Theatre through Sunday, May 26, begin, you feel as though you’ve entered a place that is cozy, familiar, and a little magical. The red curtain has something to do with it. The stage of the Pearl’s new home on 42nd street has been turned into an early 20th-century proscenium, with an act drop, footlights, and sweetly painted scenery.
All those afternoons drawing something on a backdrop come back to you: it’s the technique still in use in elementary schools and in summer camps. There’s a reason it lasted so long: it works. Gary Levinson’s set design really sets the scene. The sweet artifice lets you in on the game, and you just choose to believe, which is very much in keeping with playwright J.M. Barrie’s approach to life. “Everything is real except middle age,” says one character in “Rosalind” near the end of the play. Which is another way of saying, perhaps, that realness is up for grabs. In your program are song lyrics, meant to be sung as preshow and intermission music with pianist Carol Schultz. The songs are “Bicycle Built for Two” (you might know it from 2001: A Space Odyssey), “After the Ball,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and other early 20th-century or late 19th-century faves. They set the tone perfectly: reassuring, nostalgic. It would work even better with an outgoing music hall girl egging us along, but it still worked. There’s something about singing together that makes audiences happy. Scottish singer Dougie MacLean has known this for years, and it’s going on right now in Pippin (to my mind the best thing on Broadway right now).
Soon we’re in the world of the plays themselves. We’re led there by Sean McNall, in addition to playing characters in both plays, is listed as “J.M. Barrie”– meaning that he gives us Barrie’s stage directions, which is a terrific touch of director J.R. Sullivan. The language is so conversational that it makes sense to hear it, and it’s particuarly fun when McNall as Barrie reads about the character, Charles, that he’s about to become:
Public school (and the particular one) is written on his forehead, and almost nothing else; he has scarcely yet begun to surmise that anything else may be required.
The three-hander has a simple plot: Mrs. Page (Rachel Botchan), a middle-aged woman, describing herslef as “40 and a bittock,” relaxes by the sea, renting rooms from Dame quickly (Carol Schultz). A young man enters to get out of the rain, and seeing the portrait of Mrs. Page’s actress daughter Beatrice, insists on conversing with the mother of his idol.
That’s it– kind of. Mrs. Page is not quite what she seems to be. She tells Dame Quickly how delighted she is to be middle-aged. And she’s just a little too knowing when, on seeing the photograph of Beatrice that Charles carries around, that the girl practices her naivete in front of a glass. When she rips up the photo because she had no idea Charles took it all so seriously, the truth comes out: she isn’t Beatrice’s mother. She is Beatrice. She invented a mother to become middle-aged, and relax, because there are no roles for women
“between the ages of twenty-nine and sixty… When you come to write my epitaph, Charles, let it be in these delicious words, ‘She had a long twenty-nine.”
Not much has changed, eh? Part of the delight of this play, along with Botchan’s and McNall’s joy in the roles, is watching how Mrs. Page enchants Charles as a frumpy 40-something– and then, summoned back to town to play in As You Like It (see the title of the play), enchants him all over again as her wild, harum-scarum alter ego. After she comes out of changing into Beatrice, she scolds him:
“You naughty Charles, I heard you proposing to Mama!”
Convinced by Mrs. Page’s moaning, he’d thought it romantic to accompany her into her declining years.
Botchan had the audience eating out of her hand, infatuating us along with poor Charles, as she gleefully declared her manifesto of playing at life.
“The stage is waiting, the audience is calling, and up goes the curtain. Oh, my public, my little dears, come and foot it again in the forest, and tuck away your double chins.”
Like a female, theatrical version of Peter Pan, Beatrice will not grow old– she refuses to, and can’t manage more than a few weeks of it at a
THE TWELVE-POUND LOOK
The second play on the bill at The Pearl is more well-known than “Rosalind,” and for good reason. “Rosalind” is a character study, and an investigation of age and mood, but it takes a little while to get going and one can get ahead of it.
“The Twelve-Pound Look,” however, is funny from the moment it begins. Barrie (McNall, again) describes Harry Sims:
“We conceive him of a pleasant rotundity with a thick red neck, but we shall waive that point if you know him to be thin.”
Harry, a rather too handsome but suitably blustery Bradford Cover, is practicing the presentation of his knighthood, Barrie tells us,
“going on his knees to various articles of furniture, and rising from each a knight.”
His wife, Lady Sims, played with timid dignity by Vaishnavi Sharma, helps him. Sims has hired a typist to help answer all the congratulatory notes.
The typist sent by the agency turns out to be Kate, his ex-wife, played by Rachel Botchan. Botchan is even better in this role than she was in
“Rosalind”: Kate is a wry, sweet, honest creature who left her husband not, as he supposed, for another man, but because she couldn’t stand his success. The success had become his only personality trait, she explains:
“I couldn’t endure it. If a failure had come now and then– but your success was suffocating me.”
“I invented all sorts of theories to explain you. Your hardness– I said it was a fine want of mawkishness. Your coarseness– I said it goes with strength. Your contempt for the weak– I called it virility. Your want of ideals was clear-sightedness. Your ignoble views of women– I tried to think them funny. Oh, I clung to you to save myslef. But I had to let you go; you had only the one quality, Harry, success; you had it so strong that it swallowed all the others.”
Twelve pounds is the amount of money she had to prove to herself she could earn before she left.
There is delicious scene-chewing going on between Cover and Botchan. Cover, with a rich, glorious voice, puffs hilariously and rages with aplomb, occasionally showing just a teeny bit of insecurity in his Sims. Botchan matches him in energy and spirit, while perfectly handling Barrie’s darling, wry women. A hint of anger makes her point for her; most of the time she smiles (which of course, infuriates her counterpart).
“The Twelve-Pound Look” is like watching a ping-pong match on Olympus. It’s rare that one gets to luxuriate in such full-on, audience-centered, playing.
Best of all, though the wit flies (in a very Celtic way, think of a slightly less acerbic Shaw), the stakes are high: marriage; the meaning of life; the meaning of age, even of identity. Yet the plays feel as light as meringue. In Sullivan’s capable hands, Barrie’s plays divert, engage– and enchant.
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Copyright 2013 New York Irish Arts