There are sound reasons why any red-blooded, Kentucky Fried Chicken-eating American should be wary of the play Dear Brutus. For one, it’s so damn English, from the dorky accents and tea cups to the stuffy parlour-room setting and, well, those accents. And then there’s its inspiration: Shakespeare’s enchanted forest from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which just sounds like a bad idea.
And, of course, there’s the playwright: J.M. Barrie, a Scottish-born writer who in 1904 unleashed upon an unsuspecting world the story of Peter Pan, and we all know the atrocities left in its wake (grown women playing young boys, to begin with). Not to mention the rather unsavory aspects of Barrie’s mentoring (i.e., stalking and psychological manipulation) of children, which would no doubt put him on some kind of internet list of shitty men in 2018.
So why, then, is this STAGEStheatre production of Barrie’s 1917 play so curiously affecting and poignant, even profound? One reason could be its relative freshness. Sure, it’s 100 years old, but until last year, it existed in relative obscurity, rarely produced and, when recognized, written off as just another work by the Peter Pan guy. But in 2017, productions started popping up in the U.K. and the States, with many troupes calling it a “lost masterpiece.”
And while it is soooooo tempting to type that this is one “masterpiece” that deserved to stay lost, the reality is there’s a great deal to chew on in this 100-minute drama, one that is whimsical and fantastic at times, but free of cloying sentiment. Written at a time when the notion of children escaping into a magical realm where they never grow up no longer seemed so potent (a world war has a tendency to put things into perspective), there is a darkness and melancholy to this piece that elevates it above its rather pedestrian set-up. It feels like a play for grown-ups, the kind of grown-ups who possess self-reflection and the gnawing sense their lives haven’t quite turned out the way they imagined they would.
A mysterious elderly horticulturist, Lob (a manically over-the-top Paul Burt), has invited three married couples and two single women to his home on Midsummer’s Eve. Who they or Lob truly are, or why they have been invited, is never clear, but it is apparent that most are unhappy. There’s a lovers’ triangle undermining one marriage, another ravaged by alcoholism and lack of children, and even the apparently content older couple has something going on beneath the surface. Again, what that is isn’t clear, as Barrie is less concerned with characterization than he is with sticking these people into a mysterious forest that manifests just one night a year at different locations in the countryside. While his servant tells the group they should not enter the forest, Lob gleefully proclaims it will give all who venture inside a second chance, something for which most of the characters yearn.
So, through the window they crawl, and into the forest they go, and they are transformed. A failed, childless artist now has a career and a daughter; the lovers’ triangle is reset; and for some inexplicable reason, an older guy trollops through the woods channeling Ron Burgundy, flautist.
There is also one new character introduced, a young girl, Margaret (played by 9-year-old Scarlett Clark). Clark is a sparkplug, one of the few performers, along with Jason Cook’s philandering John, who exhibits much stage presence. Most of Alexis Stary’s cast too often telegraph choices, and frequently, it feels as if the actors are in their own plays.
That, along with some static staging (this enchanted forest looks and sounds about as enchanting as an alley behind some London row houses festooned with drying laundry), works against this production, as does Barrie’s flimsy character development and yawning plot holes. But the production does strike at the heart of Barrie’s words. Instead of a world in which no one grows up, we find ourselves in one in which no one can truly change. Even when the characters return from the forest and slowly realize everything had been a temporary group Happening, most do not feel invigorated or inspired. Instead, they just seem sad.
So it’s ironic that the most optimistic and imaginative character is one who doesn’t exist. Margaret even seems to realize it, at one point stamping her feet and exclaiming that she doesn’t want to be a “might-have-been.” It’s a devastating line, as the actress is so charming and lively, and the character the only one with a chance to live the life she wants, though it’s a chance she’ll never have. The fantasy of Peter Pan has grown up in Dear Brutus, and it’s little wonder why Disney hasn’t snatched up the latter. Yet.
Dear Brutus at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Feb. 11. $20-$22.