"Lost Boy" at Helen Hayes

(Original publication: November 1, 2005)

"The Lost Boy," Ronald Gabriel Paolillo's world premiere drama about the creation of "Peter Pan" is an entertaining work in progress.

The production, at the Helen Hayes Theatre Company in Nyack through the weekend, also offers a rare chance to participate in the shaping of what could be a worthwhile addition to the American theater repertory.

The playwright attends each performance, making notes and talking with audience members. He clearly wants to get things right in his first original play and feedback not just praise is important to him.

He's nearly there. All he has to do is trim 20 minutes from what is now a nearly three-hour play by eliminating a couple of repetitive scenes and sanding away at least two of the four endings of the third act.

The characters are firmly sketched and wonderfully acted. The story that becomes "Peter Pan," provides color and humor, especially in those moments when pieces of the familiar tale fall into place with little clicks of recognition.

His opening, the story of a skating accident told by 6-year-old James M. Barrie as he watches his 13-year-old brother Davey fall beneath the ice to his death, snaps us to attention. His grieving mother's cruel rejection of her surviving son holds us in shock. "The wrong son died," she tells him. "You're small and you're puny and you let him die."

Paolillo, who as Ron Palillo won a measure of celebrity as Arnold Horshack on the TV hit "Welcome Back Kotter," is a serious theater person and he has put together a serious story of how Barrie finally overcame a lifetime of guilt by making Davey the immortal master of Neverland.

Returning home to Scotland after achieving fame as an author and playwright in London, Barrie begins the Pan adventure in a graveyard conversation with his brother and continues it over several increasingly therapeutic, even passionate storytelling sessions with the Maureen O'Rourke, wife of a schoolmate turned pub owner.

While Barrie talks, Davey comes to life as Pan, kidnapped by fairies when his nanny isn't looking. He learns to fly (and other life lessons) from an old crow who assigns a young, very modern, smartmouth fairy named Tinkerbell to watch over him. When he steps upon the forbidden Neverland to rescue Tink from a crocodile, be becomes frozen in time, forever 13.

Eventually, the story becomes an acclaimed play and mum comes around on opening night to claim Jamey as a son.

R. Bruce Connelly commands the stage as Barrie, from bawling schoolboy to haunted adult and back again, wounded in every conversation with his mother but never quite able to ask for her love. Roberta Maxwell draws gasps for her iciness as the mother who can't quite touch her child.

Jeff Berg can barely be contained in the dual role of Davey and Pan, bouncing up and down the set. Eva Kaminsky draws Maureen as a mother of five excited to be crossing paths with the outside world, if only for a short time. Karen Walsh is a Fractured Fairy Tale kind of Tinkerbelle, a very funny substitute for the more traditional beam of light. Joseph Lee Gramm's multiple roles of The Old Crow, Captain Hook and the Deacon are carried out with great effect, though in truth, by the time Hook arrives on stage, the story has gotten out of hand, so to speak.

Director Kimberly Vaughn keeps the action moving every time a stage biography threatens to break out. With two sets of actors telling the same story for long parts of the play, that firm hand is welcome. Dark curtains divide the stage among several settings in Dana Kenn's spare but mostly effective design.

Presenting a season of new plays isn't an easy task for the Helen Hayes Theatre Company. Subscribers are challenged by the unfamiliar. But, since live theater should always be a work in progress, that's what makes the theater in Nyack so important.