A tireless and supremely talented 12-person ensemble of actors gets to let their hair down and play like kids in Rick Elice’s Peter and the Starcatcher, now playing at New York Theatre Workshop.
As the show is based on Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s charming young adult novel Peter and the Starcatchers, which imagines the origin of Peter Pan, the child-like play acting taking place on stage is, on some levels, appropriate. At the same time, though, the production (co-directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers) and the adaptation suffer from a bifurcation of tone, with hip sarcasm and sophomoric humor colliding uncomfortably with the staidness of the Victorian era and the quaintness of story theater traditions.
The drama unfolds within the confines of a lavishly gilded false proscenium arch from scenic designer Donyale Werle, whose inventiveness for the piece’s many locales, sumptuously lit by Jeff Croiter, seems to know no bounds. It’s equally enjoyable to slowly discover the questions the story attempts to answer, including how Peter came to be able to live without a shadow and how Captain Hook came to be missing his hand.
Even as theatergoers enjoy these fancies, they must also endure a certain sense of whiplash in the show — and may even find themselves growing extremely weary from the script’s dichotomies — and yet, it remains impossible to not savor the absolutely charming and often fearlessly committed performances.
At the production’s center is an absolutely winning turn from Celia Keenan-Bolger who plays Molly, a young girl, who, while helping her father Lord Aster (Karl Kenzler) on an important mission for Queen Victoria, has an irreversible effect on the life of Boy (Adam Chanler-Berat), the unnamed orphan who later becomes known as Peter. Not only does she astutely blend utter innocence and preternatural maturity, she shares an extraordinary chemistry with Chanler-Berat, who imbues Boy with a deft combination of slacker nonchalance, bitter nihilism, and genuine youthful exuberance.
Equally fine is Christian Borle, who plays Black Stache, the pirate who will become Captain Hook. Looking and acting a bit like a foppish villain from a nineteenth century melodrama who’s been crossed with Charlie Chaplin, Borle attacks the role with comedic abandon, so much so that it’s difficult to know whether it’s the character or the performer himself who shouts “I’ll report you to the union, y’reptilian ham!” when he senses an unseen crocodile is stealing his scene.
Arnie Burton is a delight as Molly’s randy governess Mrs. Bumbrake; Kevin Del Aguila charms as dimwitted Smee; and Carson Elrod and David Rossmer are bittersweet joys as Boy’s snarky — and hapless — orphan companions, who will become Peter’s boon friends, “The Lost Boys.”