by Rick Elise
Based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers
New York Theatre Workshop

Reviewed by David Spencer

Peter and the Starcatcher, derived from the young reader novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson of almost the same title (Starcatchers there is plural), is a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan: who was Peter before, how did he get to Neverland, what’s the deal with the pirate and the Indians and etc? This adaptation by Rick Elise provides the answers. And its something of a mixed bag.

                        On the one hand, it is performed with engaging storybook-narrative style that will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen—live, on video or otherwise recreated—the adaptation of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby originally created in 1980 by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which took techniques familiar to young audience theatre and propelled then to their most elegant and refined zenith in an epic length (seven hours in two parts) work. And it is perhaps not surprising that such an approach was developed for the adaptation of the Peter Pan prequel, as its co-director is Roger Rees—who created the title role in Nickleby. (The other director is Alex Timbers.)

                        On the other hand, as it gets closer and closer to tying together the threads between the proposed origins of the myth and the myth itself, it becomes more and more dependent upon winky, anachronistic wordplay (as if the play had received a transfusion from the Fractured Fairy Tales of Jay Ward), and while this is funny, it also comes at a price, and the price is heart. I don’t know the Barry-Pearson book (which led to an ongoing and hugely popular series) but I was compelled to sample some online pages. As one might imagine from Dave Barry, there is lots of humor (yes, it’s that Dave Barry, the columnist), and neither he nor his co-author Ridley Pearson are purists about using archaic locutions of the story’s period for their dialogue…but they never shatter verisimilitude with pop culture punnery; they trust their story to carry energy and momentum on its own merits. And indeed I found even those few pages I sampled instantly more charming than the play.

                        None of which is to say that the play is without charm or even bad. A capable and versatile young cast of 12 young men and one young woman play multiple roles and deliver business and line readings with an energy that goes to the brink of manic, the edge of pushy, the border between funny and shrill, and manages to never quite cross the line. It’s a little breathless and a little exhausting, but it kind of works—think of an adventure story told in the vocabulary of door-slamming farce and you kind of have the idea. I just wonder how much cooler, how much more timeless and—I guess, ultimately—valuable to the literature of theatre Peter and the Starcatcher would be if it had more accurately reflected the tonal restraint of the book. It seems to me we’d be capable of getting the origin myth gestation threads without underscored jokes to make sure our hipness quotient is high enough…

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