Joey deBettencourt, left, Edward Tournier and Benjamin Schrader, in “Peter and the Starcatcher.” Photo by Jenny Anderson
Although it’s a clever, inventive, and intelligent work, “Peter and the Starcatcher” simply perplexes me and I’ll tell you why. I couldn’t find a place inside of it where I could hang my hat and coat and just enjoy the experience.
Billed as “the grownups prequel to ‘Peter Pan,’” the play (with songs), was written by Rick Elice and based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Elice co-authored “Jersey Boys,” one of the best musicals in recent memory. Roger Rees and Alex Timbers direct.
I tend to give quirky things plenty of leeway, the benefit of the doubt, and there’s a nonstop zaniness here that may remind viewers of Monty Python or the Flying Karamazov Brothers, but which personally rings the bell of British farce way too often. Well, that sort of English humor needs to work very hard to impress me because I often find it hammy, intermittently funny at best, and predominantly inane.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” is a kind of story theater, half-horse, half-camel, an assemblage both literal and metaphorical as if gleaned from a ragpicker’s stockpile. Aspects of the “Peter Pan” original have become fodder for an imagined backstory that includes ships and sea battles, treasure trunks and pirates, mermaids and lost boys and Neverland. The Starcatcher of the title is Molly (Megan Stern), a plucky girl with heaps of bravura like Aurora in Matthew Bourne’s here-and-gone “Sleeping Beauty” or Elsa and Anna in Disney’s “Frozen.”
John Sanders as Black Stache, who later evolves into the character we know as Captain Hook, has his moment in the spotlight when he slams down the lid of a treasure trunk on his hand. His look of oh, oh, what have I done, while working hard to suppress the mother of all screams, is amusing up to a point. But Sanders milks it until the cow goes dry.
Although the cast is first-rate and well rehearsed, no one’s particularly riveting, and no one’s charismatic. Perhaps it’s due to the juggler-like acting that is required of each actor, switching roles repeatedly. The result seems garbled, a grab bag of easy laughs mingled among the witticisms (of which there are actually quite a few).
Where this is concerned, the onus of responsibility is on the audience to use its imagination to transform ragged props into delicious settings and costumes, the latter looking improvised – and perhaps they are. Set designer Donyale Werle and costume designer Paloma Young received Tony Awards for their contributions to this play. Their signature accomplishment is the arched proscenium, composed of thousands of pieces of discarded, found, recycled objects, that manage to look quite Edwardian from a distance. In the program booklet a great deal is made out of how ecologically sensitive these designers were with the materials they re-appropriated. That’s nice, but ecological brownie points can’t save a play that seems silly, that isn’t for children, and really isn’t for adults either.
Peter and the Starcatcher is onstage through January 12 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. Performances, Tuesday through Friday at 8, Saturday at 2 and 8, and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Check website or call for exceptions. Tickets, $20 to $110. Call (213) 628-2772 or go to CenterTheatreGroup.org.