Neverland was not the only fantasy escape J.M. Barrie conjured. The creator of “Peter Pan” devised an “Almostland” for adults in “Dear Brutus,” his 1917 play of second chances, which Westport’s summer theater has dusted off with mixed results.
Like Barrie’s more famous play, “Brutus” is a delicate and elusive piece requiring just the right touch to balance the real and the lyrical. Westport has assembled a topnotch cast, but the fault in this “Dear Brutus” lies not in the stars but in the mixing of extreme styles: from broad farce to high melodrama to intimate realism to whimsical fantasy.
It feels as if the casts of four wildly different plays have all arrived onstage at the same time. Director Gregory Boyd hasn’t created a world in which they can exist comfortably together, although he does find many pleasures in individual scenes.
Barrie certainly doesn’t make it easy for him in an unwieldy first act that introduces a roomful of characters, their backstories, their present conflicts and a new twist to the plot.
A bizarre and puckish host (Noble Shropshire) has invited a group of strangers to his country estate on a midsummer’s eve. When a mysterious forest suddenly appears outside the mansion, they are invited to enter and walk down the paths they could have chosen earlier in life.
In the second act, which takes place entirely in the woods, Barrie weaves his spell, filling his story of would-have-beens with delicious ironies, escapes and serendipity.
A philandering husband (Christopher Evan Welch) finds it doesn’t make any difference which path he chooses: Love and lust are forever intertwined. A pilfering butler (Simon Jones) takes a more professional path but discovers it’s easier to change his career than his nature. An elderly aristocrat (Patrick Horgan) seeks to find a more useful life but realizes he’s had his dream all along.
More poignantly, an unhappily married couple find starkly different fates: The self-loathing alcoholic artist (Curzon Dobell) finds a more fulfilling new life, but his hardened wife (Meg Gibson) doesn’t fare as well in her alternative reality.
In the third act they all return to the mansion and to their earlier selves, sadder yet wiser.
Designer David Gordon creates a grand and slightly mysterious drawing room as well as a haunting forest; the two settings cleverly echo each other. Rui Rita’s lighting and Linda Fisher’s costumes also succeed in the parallel-universe duties. John Gromada’s sound nicely sets the mysterious early scene but becomes too silent in the woods, where one expects at least a little night music.
Welch is a comic delight as the shallow husband. Beth Fowler brings a lovely warmth to the aristocrat’s wife who decides not to go into the woods. Dobell and Gibson play it honest as the painter and his wife.
Corrine Chandler is a find as Margaret, the child found in the woods. It’s a fresh and natural perf that remains in the memory, especially with Boyd’s haunting — rather than Barrie’s optimistic — ending reminding us that in some way we are all lost children.