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Theatre in Review: Harper Regan (T. Schreiber Studio for Theatre & Film)

Ryan Johnston, Maeve Yore. Photo: Gili Getz.

If Harper Regan were a game of baseball, it would consist of nothing but curveballs; the title character, a British woman who, in her fortieth year, finds her life slipping from its frame, is so perversely conceived that she seems to be a different person from scene to scene. The muddle extends to the play that contains her: There are clues that the playwright, Simon Stephens (best known here for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Punk Rock, and Heisenberg), had in mind a state-of-the-nation play combined with a psychological study plus a strong overlay of dysfunctional family drama and a pinch of philosophy; it's a recipe that results in dramatic indigestion.

Harper's crisis begins when she gets the news that her father, a diabetic, has been rushed to the hospital. He lives alone in Stockport, near Manchester -- Harper's parents have been divorced for decades -- and she intends to rush to his side. Only problem is, Harper lives in London and her boss, Elwood, refuses to give her a few days off. In this first scene, which wobbles all over the place, Elwood denies Harper's request, insists that she is too crucial to the operation to be spared, appears to make a pass at her, then rambles on at length about the moral decline of society ("Everybody's ill nowadays. Everybody's depressed. Everybody thinks they're ugly. Everybody's addicted to everything. Everybody has this tremendous amount of violence.") before concluding, "These are the last days of the Enlightenment is what they are." Throughout the scene, Harper comes across as shy, passive, the weakest of weak sisters.

Harper, who, as the sole support of her husband, Seth, and daughter, Sarah -- Seth can't find work, for reasons that are not revealed until much later -- can ill afford to cross Elwood. Nevertheless, on impulse she flies to Manchester. (She doesn't inform anyone, leaving her loved ones wondering whether or not to call the police.) However, rather than visit her father, she checks into the hotel for a good night's rest. By the time she arrives at the hospital the next day, he has died. Grief-stricken, Harper heads to the nearest pub -- it is eleven o'clock in the morning -- where she has a few drinks and allows Mickey, a local journalist, to flirt with her. Mickey is no credit to his profession: He is boozy, cranky, rude, and anti-Semitic. ("All that money. All those beards. Nodding their heads up against the Wailing Wall. If I was there I'd grab their fucking skullcaps and smash them right fucking into the thing.") When she turns down his graceless proposition and he responds by calling her a certain word that begins with the letter "C", she smashes a glass, cuts his neck (drawing blood), and flees with Mickey's leather jacket. Suddenly, the mousy woman we've seen before carries on like she should be riding shotgun with Thelma and Louise.

Following this episode, Harper wanders into an Internet café, calls up a hookup site, and makes a date with James, a plump, plain, sixtyish married man who specializes in such afternoon delights. This constitutes one of the play's better scenes; James clearly wants to get down to business, but he is a naturally gentle soul and he allows Harper to probe him for personal details, and he listens to her extensive confessions, which make it all the more shocking when, casually pointing to the floor, he says, "I want to fuck you here." The fierce Harper has vanished, leaving her putty in James' hands.

What else to do after this but go visit Mother? Harper and her mother haven't spoken for a couple of years, and this cues a lengthy tirade of grievances. Many of them have to do with a revelation about Seth, whose career has been destroyed following criminal charges that I can't discuss here, but which, as presented, are extremely murky and do not in any way jibe with the sweet-natured, gentle soul we see on stage. In any case, Harper is now the aggrieved daughter, hurling accusations with relish. Then it's back to London for another back-and-forth between Harper and Sarah; another revelation about Harper, who, it turns out, has stalker tendencies; and a finale in which Harper casually discusses her Manchester fling before the family sits down to breakfast.

Whatever Stephens is getting at becomes increasingly elusive as one sequence gives way to another without much in the way of dramatic logic. Under the circumstances, the actors in Terry Schreiber's production are only as good as the script allows. As Harper, Maeve Yore has a number of telling moments, but because Stephens hasn't provided a clear psychological road map, she is forced to strike a different attitude in practically every scene, never quite pulling it all together into a coherent characterization. (It also doesn't help that the costume designer, Hope Governali, has dressed Yore in a sea-green cocktail dress that is bizarrely out of place in the work environment; she looks like she should be carrying a tray of canapés. When she finally takes it off, after 48 hours of air and train travel, not to mention sexual encounters and family infighting, it comes as a relief.) Standouts in the cast include Megan Grace as a hospital staffer who offers her own, inappropriately chatty, brand of grief counseling; Ryan Johnston, sending off competing sparks of lust and hostility as Mickey; Mike Phillips Gomez, as a student with whom Harper strikes up a conversation (in a scene that isn't at all that it seems); and David Donahoe, as James, the kindest, gentlest of cads,

George Allison's ingenious set design employs a couple of dozen boxes that can be rearranged to make a kitchen counter, sofa, and bar, among other things; the entire cast pitches in for the scene changes, which, miraculously, happen in mere seconds, with projections to announce each location. It's a great solution for doing a multi-scene play in a studio environment. The great Dennis Parichy provides subtly modulated lighting with colorful undertones that support the mood of each scene. Andy Evan Cohen's sound design injects each scene with effects -- birdsong, ambient traffic noise -- in almost subliminal fashion, along with a playlist of rock tunes to cover the scene changes.

Your enjoyment of Harper Regan -- a play that, admittedly, has many defenders -- will depend on how you feel about Harper herself. To my eyes, the nicest thing you can say about her is that she is a scattered collection of stray emotions; in a less charitable mood, she might appear to be almost monstrously self-involved. Anyway, after two and a half hours of sturm und drang, the wrap-up comes when Harper, after informing Sarah that she has no wisdom to impart, adds, "But, and you need to remember this, it's so much better than never to have lived at all." It's a long, long trip to arrive at that little nugget. -- David Barbour

(13 May 2016)

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