Bedlam adapts a childhood favorite for an adult audience.
Bedlam performs Peter Pan like a bunch of kids. At first, you might think that is a good thing, especially for an experimental theater troupe best known for its austere adaptations of serious cornerstones of the Western canon like Hamlet and Sense & Sensibility. After all, this is the play about the boy who never grows up. In that spirit, this company-devised adaptation (now playing at the Duke on 42nd Street) has all the trappings of kids playing in a basement, with actors swapping characters and operating under an inscrutable internal logic. The problem is that for nonparticipating sober adults, it is exactly as interesting to watch.
Part of this has to do with the fair assumption on Bedlam's part that their audience is already intimately acquainted with J.M. Barrie's story of the spritely boy who flies away to Neverland with three middle-class British children. The skeleton of that original play remains, but most of the stage time is devoted to significant digressions about Peter's video game addiction and Mr. & Mrs. Darling's kinky sex life (which apparently involves a fair amount of Peter Pan role play). While a close look at the adult implications of this story about child abduction is not a bad idea, these deconstructions are less insightful and feel more like first impulses in an improv class.
That's often the case with ensemble-built pieces. They required a director who is also a shrewd editor. Regrettably, Bedlam artistic director Eric Tucker (who also appears as an actor) doesn't do it for this piece. The beats feel half-considered, with ideas picked up and just as soon discarded. The result is a general inertia, with the play never really building to anything that we care about. Even one of the most stimulating scenes from the original, in which we are asked to clap our hands to save Tinker Bell, feels so thoroughly unmagical here that we're not sure we even want to clap.
That's not to say the performances are bad. Susannah Millonzi is very funny as Tinkerbell, playing her as Peter Pan's angry French ex-girlfriend. The tension between Millonzi and Brad Heberlee (who does double duty as Peter and Nana in two very physical performances) is palpable, lending some rare electricity to the play. Zuzanna Szadkowski makes us howl with her impression of Melissa McCarthy playing Captain Hook. "Boo! Sucky actors! Boo," she taunts from the audience like schoolyard bully. We laugh along, aware that they're all excellent actors, just not very good writers.
The design reflects the confusion of the script. John McDermott's set has one thrilling transformation, in which the entire audience is brought under a canopy as if we've been invited into Bedlam's blanket fort. Unfortunately, the rest of the set isn't quite as magical, looking like the set for a community theater production of Anything Goes. It features a ship's deck made out of (what looks like) translucent hospital green plastic. Les Dickert's lighting attempts to make a distinction between when the actors are playing characters from Peter Pan and when they're playing the grown-up kids engaging in make-believe, but it is never entirely clear. Charlotte Palmer-Lane's costumes are contemporary casual clothes that somewhat evoke the Pan characters (Captain Hook's fur-collar bathrobe is particularly memorable) while keeping the let's-put-on-a-show aesthetic.
Tucker provides heavy-handed sound design, which mostly consists of underscoring that never really heightens the moment in the way that it ought. Occasionally, a disembodied voice will read out the stage directions, like one that describes the magic of Flying by Foy. Of course, no one actually flies in this production — they just exit stage left.
What remains is a story that is too boring for children, too obvious for adults. It seems that the group of people likeliest to get any joy out of Peter Pan is Bedlam itself. That's perfectly fine, but from a practical standpoint, they might find a more cost-effective playroom somewhere not on 42nd Street.