Before Peter (Adam Chanler-Berat) met Wendy—before, in fact, Peter even had a name—he met his famous companion’s mother, Molly Aster (Celia Keenan-Bolger). In Rick Elice’s Peter and the Starcatcher, a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s play, the two embark on their first quest, to protect “star stuff” from falling into the (two) hands of the Black Stache (Christian Borle), a rather unintimidating pirate who will later become Peter’s nemesis Captain Hook. What exactly is “star stuff”? It’s never entirely explained, except to say it grants different powers to different people and has nothing to do with Carl Sagan. Judging by the way it glows from within its sea chest, it is as elusive as the contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction—or, as Stache would have it in one of his more far-reaching jokes, “as elusive as the melody in a Philip Glass opera.”
I can’t say with certainty that Peter and the Starcatcher is the worst play currently running on the New York stage, but I would be surprised if it weren’t the most disappointing. Barrie’s wonderful story, now having reached mythical status, is reduced to a series of misfired jokes aimed at both children and their parents. For the children, we get bowel humor and alliteration (and sometimes both, as when one character recalls that moo shu pork “went through me like the winter wind in Wessex”). For the parents, it’s a series of increasingly grating anachronisms: besides the rather obvious gibe at Philip Glass, Mr. Elice references Ayn Rand, the Cadillac Escalade, Proust, and Starbucks Coffee with equal superficiality. Though the wordplay is occasionally successful (“Smee, sir? / That’s me, sir”), it is often just a slightly more sophisticated version of the children’s potty humor—for example, when Stache cries out, “You’ve made your bed, Pan!” Perhaps the most typical scene is the one in which an islander cannot stop laughing hysterically because in his language “Molly” means “squid poop.”
Then there is the ongoing joke that Molly’s nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake (Arnie Burton), is played by a man—as if this weren’t hilarious enough, she is also subject to a series of overtures from another man, Alf (Greg Hildreth). Cross-dressing is standard in the British pantomime tradition—which figures heavily in this play—and yet in the hands of Mr. Elice, this comes across as nothing more than cheap homophobic humor.
Fortunately, we have Mr. Borle, whose inspired campy energy nearly makes Peter and the Starcatcher bearable—nearly. With a Groucho Marx moustache and Alec Guinness teeth, his sweat-soaked figure leaps around the stage and sprays his fellow cast members with mists of spit that mark a truly dedicated actor; he even manages to sell the godawful pun “splitting rabbits,” a setup for Smee’s correction, “Splitting hares.” If only he had a play that deserved him. Here, his talent is as stranded as the boys on the island of Neverland.