Sadly, the actor who played Horshack in the 1970s TV series Welcome Back, Kotter is no longer. The late Ron Paolillo does, however, live on through his play The Lost Boy.
Now playing Langham Court Theatre, The Lost Boy is a drama inspired by the life of J.M. Barrie. Barrie is, of course, best known as the creator of Peter Pan, a.k.a., the Boy Who Never Grew Up.
If you’re old enough to remember Paolillo’s comic turns in Welcome Back, Kotter you might be a touch surprised to encounter The Lost Boy. It’s his sole outing as a playwright as far as I could tell.
In the series — now mostly remembered as a launching pad for John Travolta — Paolillo played a nasal-voiced student renowned for the catchphrase: “Ooh, ooh, Mista Kahta! Mista Kahta!” Horshack turned out to be the apex of Paolillo’s show-biz career, and the actor — who subsequently achieved limited success — was said to be disappointed at being forever typecast.
The Lost Boy, which premiered in 2006, is an affectionate and rather precious look at Barrie. Some might find it charming; others will find it workmanlike and sentimental.
The play introduces Barrie (played by Nolan McConnell-Fidyk) just after the 1873 premiere of The Little Minister, a stage play based on his novel of the same name. Barrie, now dreaming up the plot for Peter Pan, decides to visit his mother in his Scottish hometown.
To call dear ol’ Ma a curmudgeon is an understatement. Margaret Barrie (Hilary F. Allan) makes Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest seem like a total sweetie. Meaner than a junkyard dog, Maggie blames J.M. for the death of his eldest brother, Davey, who died at age 13 after he fell through the ice at a skating pond.
At Davey’s funeral she tells Barrie, then six years old: “You’re small and you’re puny and you let him die… the wrong son died.” A bit harsh perhaps (although it’s true that in adulthood the playwright/novelist grew to only five-foot three inches-and-a-half). Maggie’s other anti-Barrie quips include: “Don’t use the good towel, we’ll never get the blood out of it.”
So we don’t entirely blame him when he tarries en route to visit her. Barrie stops for a fortifying ale at a pub where it turns out the innkeeper (Andrew Shepherd) was the school-yard bully who used to beat the bejeezus out him. Improbably, the innkeeper invites his former punching bag to stay overnight at his home — even more improbably, Barrie accepts.
There he meets Maureen, the publican’s wife, who’s way nicer than Barrie’s mom and loves listening to him go on and on about Peter Pan. The pair immediately fall in love. This might be a good thing, partly because Barrie’s wife Mary (Kara Anderson) is vain and egotistical and makes fun of her husband for not giving her children (at least one biography suggests their marriage was unconsummated).
As Barrie spins the Peter Pan yarn for an enraptured Maureen, the audience sees it brought to life by Peter (Colin Wilson), Tinker Bell (Corina Filipovic) and others. Langham Court veteran Roger Carr plays Old Crow in a feathery costume reminiscent of Brian Eno’s 1972 glam look in Roxy Music.
It seems half the show is young people performing Peter Pan, giving the show an after-school-special feel. The youngsters are well rehearsed. When not playing Peter, the energetic Wilson is also appealing as brother Davey in flashbacks.
The fact that the Neverland sequences take place upstage tends to distance the audience from the action. More could be done with projections — a mostly blank background does little to conjure up the colourfully exotic world Barrie envisages.
On Thursday, McConnell-Fidyk impressed in the lynch-pin role of J.M. Barrie, delivering a polished and vivacious performance. Barrie does weep an awful lot in the show — happily the actor navigated these tearful episodes with aplomb.
In The Lost Boy, the playwright’s fondness and enthusiasm for his subject is obvious. Paolillo makes a case for Peter Pan being the alter-ego of brother Davey, whose premature death kept him in a suspended state of childhood. He also suggests Barrie tried to fill the void experienced by his mother by creating his famous character.
All this is likely true, although not exactly ground-breaking for those familiar with the writer’s life. What’s more problematic is the one-dimensionality of such characters Barrie’s wife and mother. Overall, there’s sense of heavy-handedness to The Lost Boy — it lacks complexity and thematic sophistication.
The Lost Boy continues at Langham Court Theatre to Dec. 3.