NEW YORK (AP) — Scottish author and playwright J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan and Neverland, also wrote intelligent comedies for adults confounded by the fast-changing Edwardian era.
The Pearl Theatre is closing out its 29th season with a lighthearted pair of Barrie's plays, combined in "This Side of Neverland" and deftly staged by Pearl artistic director J. R. Sullivan.
Sullivan creates a period atmosphere of breezy charm in the winsome production, which features several members of the Pearl's resident acting company who are expert at insouciant, perceptive farce. The show opened Sunday night for a brief run at the Pearl's new permanent home on far West 42nd Street.
Prior to the first play, the audience is invited to sing along with engaging turn-of-the-century songs played on an upright piano by Carol Schultz. In the lyrics, courting couples ride on bicycles built for two, chase rainbows and dance waltzes while the band plays on.
Rapidly leaving behind those innocent concepts, the theme in the comedies that follow is more realistic. In a period of rapid social change, women were beginning to find personal freedom, empowering themselves while leaving generally confused menfolk in their wake.
Sean McNall suavely enacts Barrie, introducing each play by reciting the extensive stage directions.
Rachel Botchan's eyes sparkle with mischief in "Rosalind," as she portrays middle-aged Mrs. Page, the retired mother of an actress who lazily gossips with her landlady (Schultz.) When McNall intrudes as a hopeful, naive suitor of her daughter, Mrs. Page gives him quite a surprise.
In the second play, "The Twelve Pound Look," Botchan stars again, this time emanating poise and confidence as a typist named Kate. Her visit to a smug, shallow man about to be knighted will radically change his selfish, well-ordered world. Bradford Cover preens with swaggering pride as soon-to-be-Sir Harry Sims, with Vaishnavi Sharma sweetly demure as his politely loyal wife.
Kate merrily greets all of Sir Harry's boastful claims of success with barely concealed mirth and impertinence. The audience laughs along with Botchan, especially when she brightly agrees with Sims' clearly inaccurate opinion that he has "a profound understanding of women."
Getting a bit closer to the magic of Neverland, it may be improbable that these women successfully pull off their various bids for freedom in a male-dominated world. But that's the charm of Barrie. He made us believe in Captain Hook and Tinkerbell, and so we can believe that women oppressed by Victorian strictures could find the spirit to escape their gilded birdcages of propriety.