There’s a reason that J.M. Barrie’s tale of Peter Pan and Wendy has been so enduring and endearing for nearly 100 years. Of course this story appeals to children – filled as it is with fairies, pirates, flying, and adventures of all types. But the reason its themes continue to haunt audiences into adulthood is because within the bones of the fantasy is the cautionary tale of what happens when a woman loves too much, what happens when she gives up too much to a man who can’t commit, who can’t decide, and who most certainly can’t grow up. And so, watching Natalie Underwood’s A Wendy Story is both refreshing as well as sweetly comforting, for while it mines the age old story for its tried-and-true themes, it still manages to deliver a fresh story which brings alive a new cast of characters who resonate in their own magical realm.
Fans of the original story will smile as easter eggs appear throughout the play. Of course there’s Wendy Darling and her irresistible Pete, there’s the twinkling, magnetic Tinx and the cantankerous Jason Hookman who is the bane of everyone he comes in contact with. But light touches (such as the hideous statue of a crocodile with a clock in its mouth, Hookman’s injury forcing him to wear an eye patch, and lines like “I’ve been walking this plank for 3 months“) are all lovely nods to the original story that pay homage rather than hit the audience over the head.
Since A Wendy Story is, after all, Wendy’s story, this play gives us the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of the deeply sensitive, giving, nurturing Wendy. By day Wendy’s a slave to the corporate oppressor who orders her around, dismisses her, verbally and emotionally abuses her … keeps her hopping and eternally at attention. By night she comes alive – but only when aided by a lot of booze and other substances which loosen her up. While she’d like to claim her evenings of hanging out with Pete’s band -Aimless Youth- make her feel alive, magical, and free she also admits to her office-mate, Sonja, that she feels as if she’s always playing catch-up with an urgent need to be cooler, more indulgent and “a true artist”.
Wendy (Yasmeen Jawhar) is devoted to propping up the men in her life despite the fact that they often act as if they don’t need her. During the day Hookman will dismissivly wave her away, slam doors in her face, crumple up and toss away her carefully recorded phone messages and attempt to intimidate her with boisterous orders which range from demands for a masseuse to leaving her to negotiate a million-dollar deal as he indifferently watches from the sidelines. Wendy handles it with cool resolve, admitting virtually in footnotes to her office mate Sonja (Jen Perney) that she’s on the verge of cracking. Sonja watches, appalled at Hookman’s behavior but unable to change a dynamic which continues day after day. She can only offer a friendly shoulder of support and some between-the-barking advice.
It’s no wonder that at night Wendy turns to a world of fanciful freedom, raw and real – though hardly a place of comfort. Filled with starving artists all attempting to make their way but only finding themselves lost, these are the true Lost Boys, living in a theatre acquired mysteriously by lead singer Pete (Joe Yoga) who seems to have something the other boys don’t. While it’s not exactly ambition whatever it is is like an internal compass which points him in a certain direction. This unexplained charisma weaves a spell over Wendy – (Sonja: How’re things with Pete? Wendy: Intense. Magical. Passionate. Adventurous. It’s an awakening.) – and she willingly burns the candle at both ends in order to dance with the band at night, working to be part of their group, longing to understand their games, desperately aching to share their freedom despite the fact that she knows their freedom comes with a fair dose of discomfort as well. Wendy’s relationship with the charming, boyish, cavalier Pete is undefined yet supremely important to her.
Just as Sonja provides a sounding board and the voice or reason during the day, Wendy finds a friend she can confide in when She-Ra bonds with her as the only other female in this land of Lost Boys (Bill [Brian "Beezy" Douglas] Dave [Marlon "Marbar" Kaltenborn] and Bonaparte [Ben Williams]). That is until the pixieish, brash, flamboyant, outspoken Tinx (Debby Bell) literally comes flying back in. Wendy is immediately pushed aside for Tinx as Pete explains their casual yet enduring relationship which takes precedence and pushes aside all others. (Tinx is in town for what, a couple of months? And then she’ll be gone again. Tinx and I go back. Way, way back. It’s always been like this. It doesn’t change anything about you and me.) Wendy is left in her Neverland feeling sidelined and self-conscious, no matter how much beer she drinks to feel free she will never come close to reaching the pure ball of light that Tinx is naturally. While it’s not a competition, really – what in life isn’t?
Underwood beautifully illuminates Wendy’s yearning to experience everything in a short revery Wendy delivers to her friends … a night when she spent the early part of the evening “… dressed to the nines, eating these lovely little hors d’oeuvres off silver trays” but by the end of the night finds herself “… in the freight elevator with the catering staff slamming tequila“. As they’re “passing around a joint, looking out over the water” she recognizes what it feels like to see both sides of New York City. It’s this attention to detail that makes Wendy good at her job, but it’s also what gives her this unquenchable yearning; she needs to couple the straight jacket of her days with the reckless abandon of her nights in order to feel alive, in order to feel like she’s experiencing everything – in order to feel lucky.
Because she has book-ended her life with two men who use her need to please to feed their need to feel superior; Wendy has unfortunately created a place where, on both sides of her life, she is dominated by a desire to belong, and an overwhelming fear of abandonment. For a narcissistic man like Hookman (Bill Chambers), or a self-involved one like Pete it’s literally a dove-tailing of neuroses.
Sonja (Jen Perney) and She-Ra (Sonseray Talbot-Reed) appear to be the evolved versions of what Wendy would be if she could balance and overcome her challenges and anchor herself to one of her two worlds. Both Sonja and She-Ra are quite secure with where they are (She-Ra: The difference between you and me – this is where I’m healthy. This is where I can sleep.) but both good friends express concern as they watch Wendy on a clear path of self destruction. Both Perney and Talbot Reed are strong in their roles, providing both reality checks as well as helping Wendy adjust her internal compass when she appears to be veering too far off course.
Joe Yoga is a seductive Pete – besides being obviously charming and handsome Yoga possesses both the boyish quality of the original Peter Pan while still affecting the stance of a leader who possesses the talent and ability to effortlessly (or so it would seem) lead his band through songs which throb and pound and pulse and seduce. While his cavalier attitude toward life, work, Wendy, and anything that smacks of responsibility paints him as a cad, Yoga has that twinkle in his eye and that sly half smirk which dares any woman to walk away.
Bill Chambers as the cantankerous and inconsiderate Hookman doens’t hold back – he bellows and snarls and sneers with the best of them, each dismissive glance shot twitches of memories of every bad boss I’ve ever had through my whole nervous system and left me a bit edgy. Have I been a Wendy? And how. Chambers reminded just how much of a Wendy I once was …
Though the cast is large Underwood’s script, as well as her direction, does service to all her characters; even in a group there is an organic quality to the conversation where personalities are left to unfold candidly while still giving the audience enough information to form an opinion about the spirit as a whole. Snapshots of a world are all we need to know as Wendy glides back and forth. Underwood has done a wonderful job of not only writing A Wendy Story, but not shying away from the true human character flaws which make Wendy not only more identifiable and universal but also richly textured and exceptional.
Aimless Youth, which has an opportunity to perform the song “Parasite” rocks the house – and Joe Yoga’s real band – Downward Dogs -have tracks from their album “Familiar Techniques” played during scene changes which provides a fantastic energy every time the lights go down.
A Wendy Story is truly a fantastic experience – full of energy, emotion, break downs and break throughs. If you’re feeling a little lost these days, let Wendy – and her story- help point the way back home.
~~~A Wendy Story Written and Directed by Natalie Underwood Thursday, July 19, 2012 through Saturday, July 28, 2012
Under St. Marks 94 St Marks Pl New York, NY 10009 Click Here for tickets