Off Broadway Theater Review: HARPER REGAN (Atlantic Theater Company)

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by Harvey Perr on October 18, 2012

in Theater-New York

THE JOURNEY HOMEWARD

The title character in Simon Stephens’s freshly observed new play, Harper Regan, is at a crossroads in her life, in the midst of what we used to call a midlife crisis.  Her father is dying.  Her boss (a slyly direct Jordan Lage) won’t give her the time off to see him.  Her daughter (a salty Madeleine Martin) fights her as she has fought her own mother, but with a streak of cruelty Harper has never allowed herself.  Her husband (a persuasively warm Gareth Saxe) has been cast adrift by society because he has been accused of perversions which seem, on the surface, insignificant, but which may be, under closer moral inquiry, not so innocent.  He is also dependent on Harper’s employment because he has none of his own.

Harper Regan by Simon Stephens - Atlantic Theater Company - Off Broadway ReviewSomewhat lost and, in ways, even dazed by her situation, Harper is in an active state of inaction, and what follows is a series of brief and telling scenes in which she goes on a journey towards self-realization that is a form of pilgrim’s progress.  She engages in a halting but insightful conversation with a fellow student of her daughter’s, an Anglo-African young man, Tobias Rich (an exquisitely limpid and straightforward Stephen Tyrone Williams).  She decides to take off to see her father, whom she has never told she loved, only to arrive Harper Regan by Simon Stephens - Atlantic Theater Company - Off Broadway Reviewat the hospital to find out that he is already dead.  A nurse (a sensitive Mahira Kakkar) is both too understanding and too detached.  She is confronted in a bar by a hate-spewing alcoholic young fascist (the powerful Peter Scanavino) and, in a terrifying moment, unlike anything she’s probably ever displayed before, commits a sudden and deserved act of violence and walks away with the young man’s leather jacket, which quickly becomes the badge of Harper’s newfound self.   She goes to a hotel room with a married man (a pitch-perfect Christopher Innvar).  Harper Regan by Simon Stephens - Atlantic Theater Company - Off Broadway ReviewAnd she confronts her clear-eyed and brittle mother, Alison (Mary Beth Peil, giving what is perhaps the play’s most brilliantly sustained performance), and, for the first time in her life, holds her own; and is, in a peculiar sense, rewarded for her own pugnacity.  Alison has a “toy boy” of a new husband (the burly and frank John Sharian) who has a sidekick, a gentle Indian (a very credibly tender Vandit Bhatt) whose manner is disarmingly sweet and ultimately useless.

Harper Regan by Simon Stephens - Atlantic Theater Company - Off Broadway ReviewHarper, a woman altered by her experience, returns to hearth and home, facing Tobias en route, in a lyrical scene which connects the dots left behind in her initial meeting with this decent young man.  At home, she tries to straighten out her tightly-wound relationship with her daughter, with the knowledge that mothers and daughters may forever feel strain between them.  And she confesses her infidelity to her husband.  A final scene reunites the family, but, as in life, a sense of melancholy fills their garden.  And their future, although brighter for Harper Regan, may be a tougher slog for her husband and daughter.  The husband still dreams of exploring the moon, but Harper knows that an exploration of self goes deeper and farther.

Harper Regan by Simon Stephens - Atlantic Theater Company - Off Broadway ReviewAll this, under Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s resourceful direction, and with some of the strongest ensemble work this reviewer has encountered in a long while, is lively, intelligent, and expressive.  But if Simon Stephens seems more a playwright to watch than a writer who has reached nirvana with this play, it is because the center of his work, Harper Regan as acted by Mary McCann, lacks the gravitational pull the play demands of her.  More acted upon than active in the early scenes, Ms. McCann seems awkward in ways that Harper Regan by Simon Stephens - Atlantic Theater Company - Off Broadway Reviewsuggest it is the actor, not the character, who can’t find the space in which to move.  When she slowly comes into her own, the manner she adopts seems not so distant from the diffidence from which she starts out.  McCann is good enough, but not so good that she can take such a good play and turn it into a soul-satisfying theatrical experience.  And because the rest of the cast gets their cadences just right, her British accent seems strained and lacking in the feel of quotidian poetry.

Harper Regan by Simon Stephens - Atlantic Theater Company - Off Broadway ReviewStill, Harper Regan is worth your time.  There is more than enough here to feel as if one has been in the presence of an important young writer. Simon Stephens.  Remember the name.

photos by Kevin Thomas Garcia

Harper Regan
Atlantic Theater Company
scheduled to end November 4, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.atlantictheater.org/

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