If only there were ten more theaters like the Pearl, New York would be in great shape. Their most recent production, This Side of Neverland, combines two J.M. Barrie one-acts, “Rosalind” and “The Twelve Pound Look.” Barrie was one of those authors, like Maurice Sendak, who understood that childhood is far more complicated and melancholy that we often give it credit for, and by now it has become clichéd to apply the subtitle to his most famous play, The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up, to the man himself. “Rosalind,” about a middle-aged actress, Beatrice (Rachel Botchan), who doubles as a twenty-three-year-old starlet, demonstrates that his anxiety about aging was not limited to Peter Pan. Struggling with the indifference of writers to women her age, she continues to play the lead role in As You Like It, but when a persistent admirer (Sean McNall) shows up bearing an autographed picture and an aching heart, she confesses her deception. It should be obvious why Barrie would love As You Like It—which gives us the magical Forest of Arden, where Shakespeare’s heroine can escape from social norms and reinvent herself—but by giving his actress the name of the lead in Much Ado About Nothing, he betrays an interest in feminism that becomes more explicit in the second play.
“The Twelve Pound Look” centers on Harry Sims (Bradford Cover), a pompous gentlemen who is about to be knighted by the queen. He hires a typist (Ms. Botchan) to write his thank you notes, but she turns out to be the very woman who left him years ago for another man—only the “other man” was not some young lothario but liberation from a patriarchal household. Eschewing money and status for freedom, she revels in her working class life, and lightly takes Harry to task for his ignorance of women.
The Pearl opened its season with what turned out to be its best production, a revival of The Marriage of Figaro, but This Side of Neverland is nevertheless a warm, comfortable show. In a nice move, director J.R. Sullivan opens each one-act with Mr. McNall reading the rather novelistic stage directions aloud, ushering us into each scene as if it were a particularly good bedtime story. Granted, there is nothing revelatory about “Rosalind” or “The Twelve Pound Look”—it is part of a tradition of early twentieth century playwrights choosing women’s lib as one of their subjects—but Barrie is less self-satisfied and more self-deprecating than his peers Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, whose works would lead the audience to believe that feminism was entirely in the hands of rich, white men. Mr. McNall, always a delight, hops between three different parts with ease, and Ms. Botchan is alternately heartbreaking—as The Woman Who Would Not Grow Up—and empowering as the society lady gone rogue. Mr. Cover’s Sir Harry is the standout of the night, his buffoonery offering a lesson to all men who profess to know women.
In many ways, This Side of Neverland is a perfect embodiment of the Pearl itself: funny, reliable, somewhat old-fashioned, and with a cast of familiar and extremely talented actors.