Is “Never Land” Utopia, the place where dreams are born (as Peter Pan once sang)? Or is it a euphemism for miserable reality — what Hamlet called this sterile promontory? Evidence for both is vividly provided in Phyllis Nagy’s 1998 fantasia on cultural and psychic displacement, now enjoying its U.S. premiere under her direction. The dense, textured script is no cakewalk for either producer Rogue Machine or the audience, but many will find it worth visiting.
A news item about a French family with crazed Britannia dreams inspired Nagy to create Anglophile Henri (Bradley Fisher), who has banned the native tongue in favor of perfect “received pronunciation” English.
At work, he carries himself as a proper gent; at home, he acts out “Fawlty Towers” scripts to impress the visiting petit bourgeois Brits (Christopher Shaw, Shannon Holt) he hopes will whisk him to Bristol to manage one of their bookshops.
Henri’s enraptured idee fixe has unhinged his loved ones. Wife Anne (Lisa Pelikan) fashions his mock Savile Row suits in a haze of hallucinatory romantic reminiscence, fueled by alcohol and smoke. “I want to breathe,” she whispers. Sneering daughter Elisabeth (a vigorous Katherine Tozer) wallows in self-loathing, setting her cap for the abusive Michael (William Christopher Stephens), a black American washroom attendant, mostly because “he doesn’t mind me.”
The Jouberts’ disequilibrium is dramatized through radical tonal shifts from broad farce to naturalistic melodrama to Symbolist ritual, sometimes midway through a scene. Such juxtapositions are, dramaturgically speaking, much more Continental than British, suggesting the family’s authentic nature coming to the surface. (As does Frederica Nascimento’s quintessentially French farmhouse interior, artfully lit by Jared Sayeg.)
Dicier are the stream-of-consciousness soliloquies in which the script says “time stands still” for the likes of this: “The last. The Henri. The last one. The tallest. A strawberry. Shimmer. Shimmer of blood. Blood. Everywhere. Too late. Too late the bell the handshake … ”
Pelikan — a gorgeous, damaged Dresden doll — comes closest to riding through such arias musically, but all three Jouberts are directed into a certain vocal and emotional monotony. When a thesp insists we follow each individual image, the difference between time standing still and stopping dead becomes too clear.
Still, audiences that hang in through the rough patches will savor the occasions of loopy behavior right out of Lewis Carroll. A 30ish daughter bathing starkers in the family room, or guests eating mashed food off the floor, seem positively routine and lay the groundwork for more extravagant surprises to follow.
The characters most comfortable in their own skin benefit from the most confident performances. Holt’s toothy, enlivening bonhomie drops at a crucial moment to reveal her essential fragility. Though Michael is a crudely drawn ugly-American caricature, Stephens wields real power when the menial laborer turns the table on his so-called betters.
As Henri’s employer, the estimable William Dennis Hunt offers Gallic sympathy worthy of Jean Gabin. “I wake up most mornings with a smile and an erection, God bless me,” notes one who has embraced his Never Land right at home.
And if the Jouberts’ emotional beats don’t all quite land — we have to take Henri’s Anglophilic yearning on faith because it’s less than evident in Fisher’s woebegone Pierrot — the thesps execute the bittersweet denouement with consummate skill.
Meanwhile, those put off by what they perceive as patchwork indulgence over three hours may just cheer Michael’s summary: “You sure as hell should be doing something other than waxing looney-tune poetic about some shit nobody understands but you.”