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Alexandra Petri is having trouble explaining her new play.
She’s waving her arms frantically at Tynan Coffee, trying not to give too much away about her fifth Fringe offering, Never Never. In the process, she ties herself up in knots. “Let me start over,” she offers several times.
Petri is one of the most prolific writers in the District, churning out plays, columns, and humor essays at such a rapid speed that she wouldn’t seem to have the luxury of starting over so often. Still, her hesitation is understandable. Never Never, which Barabbas Theater is premiering tonight at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, is about pedophiles, which is not a topic that explains itself naturally. It’s also a nod to Peter Pan, which, given the context of the former, seems pretty messed-up.
The play came about as a form of procrastination while Petri was working on her first book, the humor collection A Field Guide To Awkward Silences. After stumbling on a widely shared Medium article about virtuous pedophiles—people who feel attraction toward children but refuse to act on them—she became intrigued by the challenge of sympathizing with the community. “My search history became very checkered,” she said.
When Petri emerged from her Google stupor, she had conceived of a drama about two men from the online community who have different views on how well they’re keeping their desires under control. One is deluding himself, while the other wrestles with whether this delusion will put people in harm’s way.
Petri has riffed on fairy tales and classic literature before: her previous Fringe efforts have included Miss Emma’s Matchmaking Agency For Literary Characters, imagining Jane Austen’s creation as a fictional shadchanit, and Tragedy Averted, about Shakespeare’s favorite dead heroes reconvening at summer camp. But she doesn’t usually pull ideas this dark from the hat of well-worn children’s stories. “It was fun to try to find this thing that a lot of people thought of as very abhorrent inside of something that a lot of people think of as very normal,” she said.
She insists her source material fit the tone—not just the pedophile stuff, but Peter Pan, too. Pan is “a huge jackass” in the original J.M. Barrie play, Petri said. “In the original, if you grow up, he’ll kill you… But he’s also super old and he’s been around for the longest time.” In addition, she was interested in the challenge of humanizing virtuous pedophiles. Together, there was a throughline from one character’s denial to Peter Pan’s own delusions: ‘What you tell yourself isn’t necessarily the true story,” Petri said.
Petri is having a good year. Scratch that: She’s so prolific, she’s already having a good summer. Random House published Awkward Silences last month, to positive reviews: Washingtonian recently praised the author for “writ[ing] about coming of age without the heavy-handedness of Lena Dunham’s Girls and with a bit more wisdom.” She’s landed viral hit after viral hit on her four-year-old Washington Post humor blog, ComPost, including a call to bump Andrew Jackson from the nation’s legal tender in favor of a woman, instead of U.S. Treasury’s current pick, Alexander Hamilton.
And after our interview ended, Petri casually glanced at her phone and mentioned she’d been selected to join D.C. playwright’s collective The Welders—just another feather in the cap of the District’s busiest 27-year-old wordsmith.
“I think my metabolism does tend to run very high,” Petri said, noting that she doesn’t usually take very long to massage a piece before sending it into the world. “I’m very much a fish. ‘Here’s 300 eggs, and I hope one of you survives.’”
Or, at least, lives long enough to not need any more explaining.
Never Never performs at Atlas Performing Arts Center: Sprenger on 7/11 at 10:45 PM, 7/15 at 8:15 PM, 7/19 at 6:15 PM, 7/23 at 8:15 PM, and 7/25 at 12:15 PM.
Photo by Justin Schneider