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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
There's nothing extraordinary about not allowing an obnoxious employer to get in the way of concern for a hospitalized father. In fact, one can only wonder at how Harper quietly endures the odious Mr. Barnes' (Jordan Lage) lecture about her duties plus an even more obnoxious over familiarity.
While a less self-controlled woman might have thrown a stapler at Barnes during the humiliating scene that opens Simon Stephens' play, it does turn out to be the cap left off the toothbrush once to often that can end a fraught marriage. Harper doesn't just walk out on her job despite Mr. Barnes' threat that taking a few days off to see her father would be the end of her job, but she does walk out on her whole life. She leaves her suburban London home for the hospital in Stockport (a town near Manchester), without a word to anyone. Not her husband Seth (Gareth Saxe). Not to her daughter Sarah (Madeleine Martin). And not to the awful boss.
Reasonable as her going to Manchester is, her doing a complete disappearing act signals that we're about to follow a desperately troubled woman into a series of increasingly bizarre (for her} situations. It's a little like Billy Wilder's golden oldie movie The Lost Weekend. However, instead of alcohol fueling Harper's actions, it's rage and despair. The play's unknown or suspense element pertains to if and how Harper will regain her equilibrium and whether loyalty, love and forgiveness can help the emotionally storm tossed Regans survive as a family.
Harper "disappearance" makes for a number of fine acting oportunities but a less than truly relevatory play. It takes the audience on a journey with a woman whose normal behavior system cracks. As we watch that crack widen, we also find out more about what led up to the emotional meltdown. We learn why Seth has become a house husband, about her complex relationship with her parents, the angst about advancing middle age that's troublesome even without traumas besetting the Regan famly.
Mary McCann, who also appeared in last year's Stephens sellout, Bluebird at the Atlantic Theater, gives a finely nuanced, sympathetic performance as Harper. But as in Bluebird, Stephens has created other characters with whom we see her interact and who keep a measure of theatrical momentum going. They expand Harper's personal odyssey into an incisive look at hot button issues like pedophelia, virulent anti-Semitism and casual sexual encounters arranged over the internet.
As Simon Saltzman observed in his review of Bluebird, taxi driver Jimmy's fares served as enablers to bring his painful emotional journey to a viable conclusion. The same is true here. Of course, it helps, that these "enablers," who are part of the bracingly large support cast, are good actors.
Among the characters seen during the pre-runaway scenes, Jordan Lage shines as Harper's magnificently creepy boss and Madeleine Martin is deliciously grown up from her kid actor days as smart and sassy daughter Sarah. Gareth Saxe has very little stage time as the at first mysteriously unemployable husband who's the chief cause of the Regans diminished life style. But when he is present, he does anxious to please misery quite touchingly.
Among the people Harper encounters in Manchester, Peter Scavino is terrific as the obnoxious bigot she picks up in a bar. Christopher Innvar is also impressive as the oddly gentle adulterer she meets for quickie sex via the internet; The always reliable Mary Beth Peil doesn't disappoint as the estranged mother married to a younger man (John Sharian) with whom Harper is unlikely to ever have a great relationship, a relationship she realizes is in danger of being repeated with her own daughter. Like all US productions of British plays the American actors tend to go overboard on the accents at the expense of crystal clear projection. Christopher Innvar exhibits the most restraint without seeming out of place. Interestingly, Peter Scavinos also comes through loud and clear, despite his heavy Cockney dialect.
With Bluebird director Gaye Taylor Upchurch once again at the helm, even the bit players contribute toward making this rather hum drum play a worthwhile theatrical experience. Rachel Hauck's set initially seems too bare bones and cold but, with an assist from Jeff Croiter's apt lighting, turns out to be a clever and fitting counterpoint to the soft-spoken Harper's unexpressed anger and pain. As an occasional prop is rolled out so are the revelations about Harper. And as Harper finds ways to express some of her feelings, so the walls of Hauck's set begin to come tumbling down, paving the way for the most fully furnished, cheerful looking conclusion. But don't let me build any expectations for a highly dramatic or really happy ending. Instead Stephens ends things realistically but not blissfully. If Harper's runaway escapade has any conclusive outcome, it's that sometimes pain and uncertainty are the future as well as the past.
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