Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Reverend’s Review & Preview: The Steward of Neverland

Brian Dennehy is best known to moviegoers for his tough-guy appearances in such 1980’s blockbusters as First Blood, Cocoon, Best Seller, F/X and its sequel, and one of my personal favorites, Legal Eagles. However, he is an accomplished stage actor and has won two Tony Awards for his riveting turns on Broadway in the classics Death of a Salesman and Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

Dennehy is currently treading the boards of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. He stars as Thomas Dunne in Sebastian Barry’s 1995 play The Steward of Christendom, which opened Sunday and closes on January 5th, and his performance is a beautifully modulated tour de force.

The real-life Dunne was Barry’s Irish great-grandfather. A policeman as well as staunch Catholic, he rose to chief of the Dublin Metropolitan Police in the early 20th century only to see his standing disintegrate amidst the early years of Ireland’s Protestant vs. Catholic “troubles.”

The Steward of Christendom, set primarily in 1932, finds an older Dunne saddled with dementia and subsequently confined to a sanitarium. His three daughters are geographically scattered, and we learn that Dunne’s sole son was killed in combat during World War I. Daughter Annie (a fine, nuanced turn by Abby Wilde) serves as one of the old man’s few temporal visitors.

At nearly three hours in length, much of which is comprised of Dunne’s life-spanning monologues, the play is challenging but ultimately rewarding. Barry’s script threatens to bite off more than it can chew when dealing with Ireland’s tempestuous political-religious history, but Dennehy and accomplished director Steven Robman ensure the production stays dramatically and emotionally grounded by keeping their focus firmly on Dunne. Also noteworthy are Kevin Depinet’s stark yet versatile set design and Jason H. Thompson’s evocative projections, including some breathtakingly holographic blades of grass.

For tickets to this highly recommended production, visit the Center Theatre Group website.

Reverend’s Rating: B+

Also now having its Southern California premiere at the neighboring Ahmanson Theatre in LA is the recent Broadway hit Peter and the Starcatcher. Winner of five 2012 Tony Awards and adapted from a bestselling novel by Ridley Pearson and humorist Dave Barry (no relation to Steward of Christendom author Sebastian Barry), the play runs through January 12th.

There have been many unique interpretations of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie’s classic tale of a boy who chooses to never grow up, since the character’s first appearance way back in 1902. Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan and Cathy Rigby have flown in stage productions; Walt Disney made a beloved animated version in 1953; Robin Williams as Peter faced off against Dustin Hoffman as his title nemesis in Steven Spielberg’s big-budget movie Hook; and Peter is currently the main villain on TV’s Once Upon a Time. There is also the 2003 film Neverland, in which Peter is depicted as an androgynous teenager being pursued by a gay, leather-clad Captain Hook.

To this diverse lineage we can add Peter and the Starcatcher. Joey deBettencourt heads a cast of twelve talented actors portraying more than 100 characters in their pursuit of the timeless question “How did Peter Pan become the Boy Who Never Grew Up?” The production has been hailed as “a shimmering treasure,” “an inventive delight” and “the most exhilarating storytelling on Broadway in decades” by various critics.

Of special note, Peter and the Starcatcher is directed by gay Tony-winning actor Roger Rees. Rees will always be remembered by me and other theatre fans of my generation as the original Nicholas Nickleby in the 1981 Broadway production of Charles Dickens’ classic book, which was televised on PBS. He has also made memorable appearances in such movies as If Looks Could Kill (as the bad guy threatening a hot, frequently underwear-clad Richard Grieco), Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, as well as onstage more recently as Nathan Lane’s successor in the musical version of The Addams Family.

Rees’s longtime partner and husband since 2011, Rick Elice, adapted Peter and the Starcatcher for the stage. Elice was previously acclaimed as the writer of Broadway’s smash hit Jersey Boys (currently being turned into a movie by director Clint Eastwood) and as co-author of The Addams Family.

Set Designer Donyale Werle won the 2012 Tony Award for the Broadway production’s settings, which were nearly 100% constructed out of recycled materials. Werle also serves as a leader of the environment-friendly Broadway Green Alliance. For the current tour, each venue including the Ahmanson was invited to contribute reusable items that were then assembled into the tour’s stage-framing proscenium. Among the items donated by theatres across the US were wine corks, bottle caps, small children’s toys, used rope, old silverware and cooking utensils, and paper tubes of various sizes.

Don’t miss this unique chance to travel with Peter Pan and his friends to magical Neverland. For LA tickets or more information, visit the Center Theatre Group website.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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