Like many of us, Trish Harnetiaux has been watching Williamsburg change—as warehouses become condos, new bars crop up overnight like mushrooms, and Bedford has swelled from a trickling stream to a healthy river of ever-younger hipsters, artists, poseurs and scene-seekers. And also like many of us, she’s conflicted about the place and where she fits into this gentrification. "I love it. My first two years here, I was really feeling excited about the caliber of the people I met—passionate and intelligent and smart. But it also became a playground, and Neverland really came to mind," she said, explaining her impetus for setting her new adaptation of Peter Pan here. It’s a story about a boy who doesn’t want to grow up, and it hits close to home. "It’s really a prevalent feeling between me and my friends," she said. "I mean, do we have to leave Williamsburg at a certain point?"
"Second star to the right, and straight on ’til morning," is author J.M. Barrie’s direction to Neverland in his classic stage play Peter Pan. Harnetiaux’s Straight on ’Til Morning takes Barrie’s story in her own direction. Peter is now an indie-rock recruiter, hugely charming, intensely popular, and recklessly selfish. Tinkerbell becomes Isabel, a "cool chick" bass player who moves from band to band and is Peter’s long-time best friend. And the pirate ship of Neverland? Why McCarren Pool, of course. "It’s a sacred place," explains Harnetiaux, who discovered and fell for the wild, abandoned wasteland soon after she moved to the neighborhood five years ago. "They hang out there and drink and watch the sun rise."
The pool is indeed the fulcrum of the play, which is very much about gentrification. The Captain Hook character—who now goes by the name of Hoard, and is a Polish real estate developer—wants to turn the whole thing into condos. While Peter has a dream of preserving the sacred atmosphere of the ruins by making it a raw concert space. (Of course the ideal option of reclaiming it as a public space had the kibosh put on it, for the meantime at least, when earmarked funds dried up in the wake of 9/11). And the sub-theme is the love story. Over the course of the play, Peter blocks off all opportunities to grow up, and is ultimately hurtful to everyone around him, particularly to Wendy, now a modern-day Moira. "He’s cruel like children can be cruel," explains Harnetiaux: "because they’re unaware."
Harnetiaux was looking to write a play about Williamsburg, when she came across Peter Pan, now celebrating the 100th anniversary of its first production. The more she read about Barrie’s life, and discovered the dark undertones of the piece, the more she saw the story as a way to delve into contemporary Williamsburg: "It’s really not a light story, and Barrie is pretty skewed in his telling of it, which is lovely and delicious." Barrie’s fascination with "immortalized youth" is particularly deep, a fixation brought about by the childhood drowning of his eldest brother. It was a theme that haunted Barrie, personally and artistically, throughout his life.
So what exactly is it that stunts our growth? What keeps us paying the escalating rents, all the while struggling for authenticity in an upscaling landscape? Why don’t we leave Williamsburg? Is it fear of responsibility? A passion for the neighborhood? For community preservation? Well, yes, all of it. But actually, says Harnetiaux, like everything in Williamsburg, it all comes back to drinking: "I wonder sometimes…Is it just that we’re too fucking drunk to grow up?"
Appropriately, the play is being sponsored by Rheingold beer. Harnetiaux and director Jude Domski are not only both Williamsburg residents; they are also both very into revitalizing the theater experience to something more natural, "where I can have a drink and it’s not four hours long." The performance will run 90 minutes, and the Rheingolds are free.
Straight on ’Til Morning runs September 7-25 at 78th Street Theater Lab
(236 West 78th Street), Wednesdays–Saturdays at 8pm, with an additional
performance on Monday, 9/20. Tickets: $15, www.smarttix.com or 212-868-4444.