Atlas Performing Arts Center: Sprenger

Remaining Performances (tickets available here):

Wednesday, July 15 at 8:15 p.m.
Sunday, July 19 at 6:15 p.m.
Thursday, July 23 at 8:15 p.m.
Saturday, July 25 at 12:15 p.m.

They say: Alexandra Petri’s Never Never is about a man who thinks he can control his deviant tendencies, but now faces his greatest temptation. It’s a poignant, troubling drama, but it also delivers the biggest laughs you’ll have at this year’s Fringe.

Rachel K.’s take: People don’t generally sign up to be the villain, but “someone has to be the pirate,” Captain Hook (Seth Rosenke) says at the beginning of Never Never. If anyone would know, it’s the one-handed antagonist of Peter Pan.

Fringe stalwart and Washington Post humor columnist Alexandra Petri’s latest show draws inspiration from the childhood tale of the boy who wouldn’t grow up. While she doesn’t forgo the laughs, Never Never focuses on the darker implications of the fable. What if being a kid forever is just as much of a trap as adulthood?

Hook is actually Kyle, who, along with his friend Alan (Matthew Sparacino), has a secret. I won’t spoil it for you here, because it artfully unfurls throughout the course of the show, but suffice it to say that the two didn’t meet in a gaming group like they claim. They’re trying to keep their urges under control while making their best attempt at a normal life.

Alan seems to be succeeding, having found all the trappings of a typical existence, including Becca (Latia Stokes) as a loving girlfriend. Her friend Amy (Lizzi Albert, oozing with charm) joins the two of them and Kyle for Thanksgiving dinner. She’s a phone sex operator, which has “ruined people” for her. “Fun life fact,” she says. “Everything’s secretly awful.” No kidding, and not secret for long.

Amy spends part of that dinner discussing the more perverted aspects of childhood stories, like the creepiness of Geppetto in Pinocchio. Kyle, who reads to kids at the local library, balks at her interpretation. One of the first signs of maturation is finding the adult themes in fairy tales (or at least looking for the boner in The Little Mermaid). But growing up is more complicated than that — a person might be stuck in arrested development if he’s obsessed with seeing sex everywhere.

Never Never finds a good middle ground between the two. It’s no stretch to use Peter Pan as a framing device for this story, including snippets from the text. The sound of a ticking clock breaks up scenes, in both a nod to Hook’s nemesis — a crocodile who swallowed an alarm clock — and an underlining of the play’s themes of time and aging.

Director and co-producer Kevin O’Connell’s staging keeps the action lively as the play charts more than a year’s time. The show even includes a swordfight, choreographed by Rosenke and Zeitler, that’s more technically proficient than the one between Allison Williams and Christopher Walken in NBC’s recent take on Peter Pan.

You’ve got to think happy thoughts to fly, and those are in short supply in Never Never. But you don’t need happiness for comedy. The show stirs up humor in a way that feels natural, and abley keeps the joke from punching down.

Yes, perhaps somebody has to be the pirate in every story. But what happens if you don’t even notice that a hook has replaced your hand? Sparacino does great work evoking sympathy for a frightening, dangerous condition, exuding decency even as he grows delusional.

What Never Never gets so right is that sometimes, we’re the pirate in our own story.

See it if: You’re interested in challenging your skills as an empath.

Skip it if: You’d rather keep your villains and your heroes separate.

Photo by Justin Schneider