Emotional heights from Mr. Peter Pan: 'Two by J.M. Barrie' at Rep Stage
By Nelson Pressley
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
J.M. Barrie, the "Peter Pan" man, had a knack for very serious pixilated comedy. "Pan" fans and admirers of the charming tear-jerker "Finding Neverland" will discover more intimate laughter and quiet heartache in "Two by J.M. Barrie," the sublime one-acts now at Rep Stage.
The first of these exquisite little plays is "The New Word," in which a father and son get isolated in the parlor to chat before the 19-year-old lad trots off to war. (It's London, 1915.) They are practically strangers, of course.
"We have both been at it on the sly," the father admits of their lives.
The comedy has an early current of the absurd: It's self-consciously archetypal, with stiff Brits existentially adrift in a drawing room. But this is J.M. Barrie, so it's done with tremendous feeling for these isolated souls and their cautious scramble to connect.
Michael Stebbins bravely directs this at a glacial pace, which allows for some amusingly sticky pauses between Bill Largess (as the father) and Jason Odell Williams (who, as the son, has a shock of dark hair that recalls the young Samuel Beckett). Largess is reliable with this sort of starchy character, pinning the kid with uncomfortable questions and harrumphing without actually sounding to, and Williams is endearingly fragile as the nervous son.
The playlet also features Valerie Lash as the mellow mother and Christine Demuth as the mischievous sister, and it's performed on a cramped, wittily old-fashioned stage with footlights casting the actors' shadows on the very close back wall. This may sound like sentiment or camp, but it's nowhere near; the audience Saturday night was intensely attentive to this delicate family business, hanging on with a sense of wonder and enjoying big laughs along the way. It's barely 40 minutes long, and it's capable of generating sniffles in the crowd.
So is "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals," which is even more explosively funny (and a little longer). The setting is 1916, with four mature ladies crowing proudly about their sons away in the war. The biggest boaster is a charwoman named Mrs. Dowey, but -- well, it would spoil a good surprise to divulge the secret she's keeping. Suffice it to say that things aren't what they seem when young Pvt. Dowey shows up for his five-day leave.
The soldier is played by Williams, but this time he's altogether different: loud and full of himself, as if battle had transformed the respectful kid of the earlier play into a dirty, swaggering warrior. Williams doesn't overdo this bravado at all, and in fact he proves to be extremely deft at the comic byplay he shares with Maureen Kerrigan's eager Mrs. Dowey.
You can't say Kerrigan wears her heart on her sleeve in the role, for she goes further than that: She is heart and nothing but. Alternately beaming and cowering, Kerrigan's portrait is as doting and unrestrained in each feeling as a golden retriever, and this often makes for hilarious exchanges with her tough young private.
Again, though, Barrie's writing -- here featuring a cute little doozy of a plot -- knits the humor with threads of emptiness and loss. It's the war, it's their lives, and Barrie's generous imagination captures small, hard realities with such precision that you feel, among many other things, a soldier's appreciation for clean sheets and a real bed. Stebbins gently emphasizes the theatricality of the plays (the footlights, the curtain that opens and closes very slowly), and he treats both plays with respect, allowing the characters all possible dignity and letting the laughs and heavier emotions come as they may. It's glorious.
Two by J.M. Barrie: "The New Word" and "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals." Directed by Michael Stebbins. Scenic design, Daniel Ettinger; lights, Terry Cobb; costumes, Melanie Clark; sound design, Ann Warren. With Marilyn Bennett and Natalia Chavez Leimkuhler. About 1 hour 50 minutes.