Atlantic Theater Company. By Simon Stephens. Dir. Gaye Taylor Upchurch. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.
Titling a play after its protagonist may seem like a no-brainer, but the practice comes with certain expectations and risks. The presumption is that the hero will be richly drawn and compelling; the hazard is that your play can be perceived as being purely character-driven, lacking ideas or dramatic substance. In the Atlantic’s slick but dull Harper Regan, the former promise is squandered and the latter danger rears its head. A 2008 piece by prolific English writer Simon Stephens (author of last year’s Bluebird), this midlife-crisis tale of a discontented wife and mother would offer a juicy role for one New York’s better performers, such as Jenny Bacon, Elizabeth Marvel or Christina Kirk. Instead, Atlantic alum Mary McCann grabbed the part—with kid gloves on.
McCann has her strengths: a watchful wariness and a melancholy underside to her surface blandness. But Harper—married to a man (Gareth Saxe) who was once investigated for owning child pornography, and mother of a defiant, solitary college student (Madeleine Martin)—is a slippery entity, a woman in flux. McCann never locates her center, remaining a sketch without shading. As Stephens’s play proceeds in (increasingly monotonous) two-person scenes, we follow Harper as personal grief and random urges knock her out of her suburban orbit, back to her Manchester, England, roots. While off the grid, as it were, she dabbles in sudden violence and casual sex before returning home to a family reckoning with the truth.
Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s stark, efficient staging takes place on a set of cantilevered gray slabs (designed by Rachel Hauck) that fold down or rotate; layers open up just as life strips away Harper’s illusions. There are well-drawn miniportraits among the 11-person cast, but McCann’s tentative work only underscores the schematic arc of the play. Stephens can lapse into writerly, on-the-nose tidiness, which is fine for a novella, but bloodless in a drama.—David Cote
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