20 October 2012

'Harper Regan'

I don't know what to make of Harper Regan, the new play by Simon Stephens being presented through Sunday, 4 November, by the Atlantic Theater Company.  I mean that literally: I don't know what to make of it because I can't figure it out.  I can't see why Stephens wrote it or why anyone would produce it.  My frequent theater companion Diana had the exact same response.  (The people sitting behind us at the Linda Gross Theater on the evening of Friday, 12 October, left at intermission and the guy sitting next to me kept falling asleep.)  I’d read Ben Brantley’s near-rave review in the New York Times on Thursday, but what he saw is a mystery.  Brantley wasn't just positive, he was enthusiastic, while I got nothing from the play at all—not even any especially compelling performances.  Now, I’ve often had disagreements with Brantley, enough so that I take his assessments with more than a grain of salt, but usually I can find some inkling of what he’d seen, good or bad, that differed with my estimation.  This time, though, we’re so far apart it’s unfathomable to me.

After a strange meeting with her boss, at which she asks for time off to visit her dying father and her boss refuses her request, 41-year-old Harper Regan walks away from the job she hates, her Uxbridge home in the suburbs of West London, and her husband and teenaged daughter.  She doesn’t tell anyone she’s going to Manchester to see her father, who’s slipped into a diabetic coma, in the hospital.  Harper and her family used to live near Manchester, in Stockport (playwright Stephens’s own hometown) where her mother, from whom she’s been estranged, still lives but from which the Regans had to move when husband Seth was accused of creating child porn.  Harper believes he’s innocent and the pictures he took of children in the park and stored on his computer were misconstrued; she also believes that her mother thinks Seth is guilty while her father supported her contention.  Harper no longer speaks to her mother, separated from Harper’s father and remarried now to a much younger man.  The visit to Manchester, where she’s arrived only to find that her father had died, will change that and a lot of what Harper thinks is settled family history.  While she’s away, Harper stabs a young man she meets in a bar in the neck with a broken wine glass and has nearly-anonymous sex with a stranger on the floor of a hotel duplex (she’s never seen a hotel room with two floors and a staircase).  When she gets back to London, she goes straight for a bridge where she earlier met a 17-year-old schoolmate of her daughter and reveals that she’s actually been stalking him for weeks.  The Atlantic’s press release concludes that “we are folded into an absorbing story about a woman who explores the limits of loyalty, morality, and the bonds of family.”

Harper Regan premiered under Marianne Elliott's direction at the Cottesloe Theatre of the National Theatre in April 2008 with Lesley Sharp as Harper Regan.  The play had its Israeli premiere at the Gesher Theater in Tel Aviv in November 2009 in Oded Kotler’s staging with Laura Rivlin in the title role and the U.S. premiere was at the Steep Theatre in Chicago in January 2010 with Robin Witt directing Kendra Thulin as Harper.  Staged by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, the director of Stephens’s first and only previous New York production, the New York première began at the Atlantic with previews on 20 September and the opening on 10 October.  On 15 October, the theater announced the production would be extended an additional week from its original closing on 28 October.

Simon Stephens, at 41 the author of two dozen plays, has won, among other honors, an Olivier Award for Best New Play, On the Shore of the Wide World at the Manchester Royal Exchange and the National Theatre in 2005.  He’s considered a writer in the “in-yer-face” theater movement, a confrontational style of playwriting that started in the 1990s.  According to coiner Aleks Sierz, a British theater critic, the term means theater that “grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message. . . .  It implies being forced to see something close up, having your personal space invaded.  It suggests the crossing of normal boundaries.”  Stephens’s work includes Bluebird, the dramatist’s Off-Broadway début presented by ATC last year; in 1998, it was the writer’s maiden presentation at the Royal Court, which has since produced many of his works.  (His first play, which premièred at the Edinburgh Festival in 1997, was Bring Me Sunshine.)  Stephens’s work has often been seen abroad, including productions in Germany (Pornography at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hanover, 2007; The Trial of Ubu at the Schauspielhaus in Essen, 2010; Three Kingdoms at the Kammerspiele in Munich, 2011), Estonia (Three Kingdoms at the NO99 Theatre in Tallinn, 2011), Holland (The Trial of Ubu at the Toneelgroep Amsterdam, 2010), as well as diverse theaters around the U.K.  (Stephens is one of the two most-produced English playwrights in Germany.)  He’s also written for television (Dive for Granada TV and the BBC, and an adaptation of Pornography for Channel 4, both 2009).  His latest works include The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, adapted from Mark Haddon’s novel, at the National Theatre and Morning at the Traverse Theatre and Lyric Hammersmith, both this year.  Stephens is currently under commission to the Young Vic, Manchester Royal Exchange, and the National Theatre, where he was named the first Writer-in-Residence ever in 2005. 

The writer was born in 1971 in Stockport, a suburb of Manchester, and he’s set many of his plays there.  His father, with whom he had a strained relationship because of the older man’s conservative politics, died in 2001 at 59.  As in Harper Regan, Stephens’s family life included “fracturing and reconciling,” including a resolution of conflicts with his mother after his father’s death.  “I think writers have obsessions that they return to in play after play, and I certainly have mine around family and Stockport—whether it is possible to tell the truth, the consequences of lying and whether it’s possible to ever go home again,” the playwright has said.  He left Stockport, the small-town atmosphere of which he disliked, after graduating from the University of York and lived two years (1992-94) in Edinburgh (where he joined the punk-rock band Country Teasers) before moving to London where he now lives with his wife and young children. 

Harper Regan was originally going to be titled Seth Regan and focus on the husband.  Stephens originally planned to explore how sexual misconduct engenders emotional turmoil that arises when sexual appetites collide with moral principle.  Then he met at the National Theatre with Nicholas Hytner, who was looking for plays with important parts for actresses in their 40’s and 50’s.  At first Stephens resisted Hytner’s hints, but he began to ruminate on the shift of focus from Seth Regan to Harper.  He said he found the idea “[m]uch more interesting.”  Even though Seth’s problems are still at the center of the play, the perspective became Harper’s.  Most analysts say the play’s about Harper’s mid-life crisis, but that seems a piddly theme for the 21st century.  Even actress Mary McCann, who plays the role at ATC, spoke of having “gone through something of a midlife crisis too.”  McCann, though, adds, “This is a woman who finds herself finally facing up to truth in her life and dealing with that truth . . . .”  Even that dramatically richer point is wan for our times, I think—though I’ve noticed from the British TV shows we see here that their society is several decades behind ours when it comes to feminism and female empowerment, at least in fiction.  (Consider the great British TV series Prime Suspect which was driven by two forces: the prickly, often abrasive personality of the detective played by Helen Mirren and the overtly sexist environment of the still-heavily male police establishment in England even as women officers, even high-ranking ones, were common here, in fiction if not in real life.) 

My problem is that I haven’t been able to come up with a better statement of what Stephens was writing about in Harper Regan.  (I don’t subscribe to the notion apparently advocated by playwright Sam Shepard, as I quoted him in my 10 September ROT report on Heartless, that we shouldn’t “ask what a play is about” or Village Voice reviewer Michael Feingold’s contention “those who pursue logical explanations” should be disparaged.)  A play that’s not about something holds no interest for me and is ultimately a waste of stage space.  It’s also hard to write about a play whose central idea I can’t uncover, so I’m left with a bit of a conundrum here.  All I have is little more than a flat statement that, in addition to a play that didn’t have anything to say to me, the characters are uninteresting, the situations contrived and inflated, the acting unengaging, the directing lifeless, and the physical production dreary.  When we were having a snack after the performance, I said to Diana that what confounded me most was that for ATC to have produced Harper Regan, someone not only had to have read the script, but probably would have seen the play on stage in London or perhaps Chicago.  How does a presumably theater-savvy pro see this script in production and still want to do it?  To me, it’s like having someone watch a guy get his tongue nailed to a post and then saying, ‘Gee, I’d like to try that.’  Why, for heaven’s sake?

As I was searching the ’Net for reviews of the New York staging after I saw it—I read the Times when it comes out because I subscribe to the paper, but I do a ’Net search for other notices after the performance—I came across a blog from the Theatre Development Fund, TDF Stages.  (TDF is the organization that operates the TKTS booth in Duffy Square.)  In his article “This Room Isn’t Real (But The Feelings Are),” Mark Blankenship argues that director Upchurch chose the production style for Harper Regan deliberately and with a lot of consideration.  Blankenship, the on-line newsletter’s editor, describes the style of the ATC production:

In her production at the Atlantic Theater Company, director Gaye Taylor Upchurch reminds us that Harper Regan hovers just above reality, that Harper’s on a symbolic journey like Odysseus or Everyman.  Actors keep their movements to a minimum, and the set (designed by Rachel Hauck) suggests locations instead of stating them.  When it’s time to change scenes, we even see the actors push walls into new configurations, reminding us we’re in the theatre.

Leaving aside the point that Odysseus’ and Everyman’s journeys are both mythic and universally momentous—Everyman’s is to the afterlife and Odysseus has given his name to signify an extended adventurous voyage, an intellectual or spiritual quest—which doesn’t seem to me to fit Harper’s “glum little journey” to Manchester, Blankenship appears to be about to try to justify Upchurch’s bland, soulless production on the basis that it’s symbolically minimalist.  He even quotes Upchurch herself in his apologia: “Simon’s dialogue always seems very naturalistic, but actually there’s a poetry to it that’s very deliberate and very spare . . . it doesn’t require a kitchen sink.” 

First, I’d have to dispute that there’s much poetry in Stephens’s dialogue, which Linda Winer characterizes as “long, bogus streams of consciousness”; at least I didn’t hear anything lyrical in the vein of, say, David Mamet or August Wilson whose prose often rises to the level of what Anna Deavere Smith calls “natural poetry.”  But whether it does or not, Harper Regan certainly doesn’t need kitchen-sink Naturalism.  The alternative, however, isn’t gray-carpeted platforms and partitions the actors flip up or down to reset each scene.  There’s surely a whole theatrical world in between those poles that isn’t drab and untheatrical.  Furthermore, when I saw that the actors were shifting all the scenery (including flipping the panels of the collapsible set or hauling the occasional hand prop and piece of furniture that Hauck has incorporated into the design), I didn’t see it as a Brechtian way to remind us “we’re in the theatre”; I thought it was just a way of eliminating stage hands. 

According to Upchurch, this is also the rationale for the static acting.  She wanted to make “sure we weren’t doing anything movement-wise that would take away from the tension.”  Accepting that there is tension, then, no, a director doesn’t want to dissipate it by gratuitous movement by the actors.  But, again, the alternative isn’t near immobility in an almost bare set.  Hauck explains that this strategy was also part of the design decisions: “What’s the bare minimum that we can do this scene with?” Upchurch would ask her designer.  This leads to some contrived and unlikely actions by the actors now and then, for instance in the fairly realistic scene between Harper and her mother, set in the older woman’s suburban kitchen.  Within the gray-walled space, Alison is chopping vegetables at a small teacart she’s using as a butcher-block table.  The cart’s crowded with objects for the task of making a salad plus a few other things like a pitcher of water with lime slices.  First, why in the kitchen everything would have to be piled onto the tiny cart when there’s certainly a counter and a sink, and so on, I can’t explain.  (Yes, I know English kitchens are smaller than American suburban ones—but this is a house, not a flat, and the kitchen is surely larger than the one in my Manhattan apartment and I have a couple of small counter tops.  Besides, when Alison’s husband and his apprentice join the two women briefly, they have plenty of room to walk around.  Two people, let alone four, couldn’t fit in my kitchen—forget about walking around in it.)  So when Harper has to put something down on the cart and it’s a tight squeeze, I wondered why she wouldn’t set it down on a counter or in the sink.  The business is illogical, not symbolic.  You want to pare down the naturalism of your set, then pare down the naturalism of the action, too.  When Grotowski mandated getting rid of all unnecessary spectacle in his theater, he didn’t then plan to stage the actual preparation of a meal on a wooden platform with a crate for a prop. 

What am I bitching about?  An awkward bit of staging?  Well, not exactly.  It’s emblematic of a kind of half-thought-out concept.  Upchurch directed ATC’s production of Stephens’s Bluebird last season but I didn’t see it so I don’t know if she used a similar approach.  Her program bio doesn’t list any other titles, so I don’t know anything about her previous work—though I assume she’s a relatively inexperienced director.  (Upchurch, who seems to be about 38 now, graduated from Wake Forest University in 1996 and, aside from staging ATC’s Bluebird, has an Off-Broadway assistant-director credit in 2007 and two assistant directorships on Broadway in 2007 and ’08, all for musicals.)  What it looks like to me is the work of an artist with some still-forming ideas that she hasn’t really integrated yet, applying them in one area without anticipating that they’ll have inapt repercussions somewhere else.  It also appears that she’s trying out ideas that seem right in the abstract, in a theoretical sense, but haven’t been tested on the ground before she committed to them.  Furthermore, Blankenship is arguing that Upchurch has wisely chosen this non-Naturalistic production style to strengthen Stephens's point theatrically.  A director can have an arguably valid concept and even execute it successfully, but end up with a bad show.  Even if all the director's ideas are correct and reasonable—and they might be under the right circumstances—she can still mount a dull and lackluster production by removing all the potential personality from the staging.  If Blankenship’s right—and given Upchurch’s own statements, I assume he is—I think that’s what’s happened in ATC’s Harper Regan.

In Blankenship’s article, Upchurch finishes up by stating that “it was important to establish why we should care about [Harper’s] journey and her family . . . .”  That’s a fairly obvious goal, dramatically speaking, but, yeah, that’s right.  We do have to care or there’s no effective drama.  The problem is, that’s what happens.  I started out by complaining that Ben Brantley seems to have reported on a different play than the one Diana and I saw.  But, ironically, Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post, seems to have seen the production I caught.  In fact, she puts her reply to Upchurch’s directorial objective quite succinctly:  whatever else we learn about Harper, “we still need to be invested in what happens to her, otherwise there’s no show”; yet, the reviewer laments, the title character ends up being “the least interesting . . . character ever invented.”  Vincentelli opens her review pretty bluntly:

Welcome to the most boring midlife crisis of the year.  No matter what happens to Harper Regan, the title character of Simon Stephens’ new drama, it’s hard to care.

Her supervisor snottily denies her time off to visit her ailing father: We don’t care.

She discovers her dad has died: don’t care.

She goes AWOL from her husband and daughter: still nothing.

As for the notion that Harper’s spree has been a great journey of discovery, Vincentelli observes that while we learn the odd detail of her life, such as her favorite bands, “[b]igger issues . . . are pushed aside.”  Harper’s excursion is little more than “a series of more or less preposterous encounters,” hardly an odyssey.  The Post review-writer sums up her response to the performance, which she describes as “a mediocre play given a mediocre production,” by adding, “The most emotion this show creates is the joy of finally being able to leave the theater after two hours and 20 minutes of mind-numbing soul-searching.” 

As for the performances, even Vincentelli has praise for “some worthy supporting turns,” but by the time the production was under way, I’d lost interest so thoroughly that I had trouble focusing much on the cast’s work.  (I did note as the performance was unfolding that every member of the Harper Regan cast had problems with the various regional and class dialects of the characters.  The production’s dialect coach is Ben Furey.)  Mary McCann’s Harper is as bland and unengaging as the play, leaving the production without a center.  McCann is a founding member of ATC (and wife of artistic director Neil Pepe), but I’ve never seen any of her other work, so I don’t know how this performance compares.  (Most reviews say she’s immensely talented and appealing.)  Considering the other evidence on display here, I blame Upchurch, who previously directed McCann in the Stephens début, Bluebird, last season, for all the acting, including McCann’s.  (The script has to be blamed as well, of course.)  Stephens speaks of the actress’s emotional depth and others praise her talent for being both vulnerable and tough, intelligent and emotional, and so on, but I saw only suppressed and artificial, trying to put across the baseless actions in the calculated vignettes if not convincingly, then consistently. 

Those supporting performances vary from unpersuasive to downright annoying.  In that last category I put Madeleine Martin (who appears on cable TV’s Californication) as Harper’s daughter, Sarah.  Petulant is the operative word for the character, a stereotypically prickly teen, but Martin’s characterization is grating and studied, as if the character were asking herself at every turn, ‘What can I do to get under my parents’ skins?’  Martin’s performance is further undermined by her nasally and sharp voice, which Marilyn Stasio describes as “the metallic whine of an industrial saw” in Variety.  Gareth Saxe does a commendable job with a severely neglected role, ironic if it was originally intended to be the title part.  From what we learn of the character, he should be unlikeable, but Saxe neutralizes that even as he essentially disappears except as a plot point. 

Many of the reviewers like Jordan Lage’s portrayal of Elwood Barnes, Harper’s cold and creepy boss, and I’m forced to agree that the actor pulls this weird guy off while projecting enough humor to keep Barnes from becoming a total turn-off; in fact, his arguments almost seem reasonable—before he makes what sounds like a proxy pass at Harper’s teenaged daughter.  Of the people Harper meets in her jaunts outside the home and office, the most passable performance is turned in by Christopher Innvar (whom I saw do an ineffective and ineffectual Petruchio in a 2007 Washington staging of The Taming of the Shrew) as the married man Harper meets on the Internet and has a one-night stand with in the Manchester hotel room.  Like a lot of the supporting characters in this play, James Fortune should be thoroughly icky, but Innvar manages to make him actually kind.  Perhaps the flashiest role is Peter Scanavino’s Mickey Nestor, the self-proclaimed journalist with a violent and virulent anti-Semitic streak whom Harper stabs in the neck with a shattered glass.  The performance is all bluster and shouting, however, and the violence—both his and Harper’s—comes out of nowhere as if Stephens decided he needed something big to liven up the script.  (Well, he does, but this doesn’t cut it.)  As the teen Harper meets on the bridge near her home, Tobias Rich, Stephen Tyrone Williams (who appeared as the Xhosa student in Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! at the Signature—where he also had accent problems—on which I reported on 11 June) barely pulls off the age (he’s in his mid-20’s) and, though he, too, is a favorite among the reviewers, I didn’t feel Williams came off as anything more than a cypher (though I think the actor was aiming for “enigma”). 

Finally, I need to say something about Mary Beth Peil as Harper’s mother, Alison Woolley.  (The actress also plays the meddling mother-in-law of Julianna Margulies’s character on TV’s The Good Wife.)  I’ll discount what must be one of the oddest hairdos on this decade’s stages—I can’t really describe it except to say that it’s a cascade of gray frizz that continually falls into Peil’s face—and say that I could well understand what might put Harper off her and Peil gets that across palpably.  I’m still not sure why Harper’s supposed to believe Alison’s version of events after believing for so long that her mother has been on the wrong side of family conflicts, but that’s Stephens’s responsibility, not Peil’s.  She’s still a control freak and a dragon lady as far as her daughter is concerned, and Peil intimates that she’s got something more up her sleeve that the play doesn’t reveal, and that makes the character at least fully rounded instead of the cardboard cut-outs presented by the other actors.  (Once again, I’m going to lay the blame for this on the director and the playwright.  Actors get fired if they defy their directors too openly—although I did once take over a production from which the cast had fired the director!)

I’ve already characterized Brantley’s Times review; he calls Harper Regan “beautiful, sharp and melancholy” and Upchurch’s staging a “geometrically precise production.”  The Timesman praises every choice Upchurch made, as well as every element of Stephens’s script (Harper’s get-away, which Brantley also dubs an odyssey, rises to the level of “a born-again epiphany”) and every performance from the cast (McCann is “stunning”); absolutely nothing in this production is wrong in Brantley’s estimation. 

On the other end of the spectrum, of course, is Vincentelli’s Post evaluation, which I’ve already quoted sufficiently.  In between lie all the rest of the published critical response.  Of the 11 other reviews I read, three are mostly positive, six are largely negative, and two are mixed but leaning positive.  (With the Times’s rave and the Post’s pan, that makes the tally 4 pos-7 neg-2 mixed.)  The issues on both sides of the divide were basically the same ones raised by Brantley, Vincentelli, and me.  In the Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz writes, “Life is messy, and the British playwright Simon Stephens captures that fact,” though he does add that “the drone of willful eccentricity at times drowns out the ring of authenticity.”  Upchurch’s production is “thoughtful” and Hauck’s “canny convertible set” is “efficiently and intriguingly designed.”  Former New York Times reviewer Wilborn Hampton in the Huffington Post calls Harper Regan a “searing play” which “is full of surprises, though upon reflection they may not be all that surprising.”  “Stephens,” Hampton asserts, “is a subtle playwright whose delicately crafted scenes are deceptively dramatic.  Harper Regan is one of those plays that at first may seem as though nothing much is happening, but in which everything is happening.”  The ATC production is “studiously underplayed” by the “splendid” cast—McCann’s acting is “a quiet tour-de-force”—which makes “Harper's journey of self-discovery a small gem.”  The AP’s Jennifer Farrar says that Stephens’s “insightful drama” is “an uncannily honest portrait” in a “well-crafted production” at ATC.  The AP reviewer affirms that “McCann is luminous” in the title role and the ensemble exhibits “mindful restraint.”  “Upchurch creates a permanent sense of tension” with Stephens’s “masterful” dialogue which is “naturalistic, sometimes ambivalent.”  The playwright’s “an expert at conveying the defining moments that can occur in ordinary conversations,” concludes Ferrar. 

Coming down on the other side of the difference of opinion is Marilyn Stasio of Variety, who declares that the crisis of Harper Reganis wasted on an uninspiring character” whom Stasio calls a “bore.”  The play is “schematic” and, Stasio suggests, “episodic” and “artificial.”  The reviewer sums up: “It took some courage for Regan to leave this place.  Too bad she had to come back.”  The New Yorker’s Hilton Als, calling the play “nearly pointless” and “drivel,” sums it up by dubbing its premise “forced dramatic tension.”  (Als singles out Madeleine Martin as “the loudest actress . . . on the American stage.”)  In Newsday, Linda Winer seems to have a positive estimation of the play, offering several left-handed compliments until her last line when she observes that “there's something wrong when we care more about” one of the subsidiary characters “than about [Harper] or her journey.”  Back Stage’s Suzy Evans opens her notice by saying, “Rachel Hauck’s layered set beautifully illustrates what Simon Stephens’ ‘Harper Regan’ only attempts to achieve,” by which she meant “the many facets of Harper’s existence.”  Evans explains that “the script fails to grasp these layers” and asserts that “Upchurch’s stiff direction keeps Stephens’ dialogue from flowing and causes the interactions to feel calculated.”  The Back Stage review-writer concludes that “in trying to complicate the uncomplicated, ‘Harper Regan’ is far too muddled for its own good.”  In Entertainment Weekly, Thom Geier proclaims that Stephens’s “overly talky” play “does not always live up to the promise of its title character.”  Other than the family scenes, Geier feels that Harper’s encounters “have a tendency to drag” as the script “meanders into narrative cul-de-sacs.”  The scenes tend “ to falter in the authenticity department,” says Geier.  “They just don't always ring true.”  On the website TheaterMania, David Finkle maintains that Stephens has written some “striking” plays up to now, but proclaims, Harper Regan “simply doesn't impress as one of them.”  Finkle describes the play as “bland,” a “series of . . . relatively unedifying chats” whose premise is “a stale conceit that doesn't make for engaging drama.”  He calls the ATC production a “troubled work” in which the set design is “just one more miscalculation.” 

The men in the middle are Michael Feingold of the Village Voice and Scott Brown of New York magazine.  Feingold, describing Harper Regan as “intriguing,” reports, “It's indecisive but constantly alive.”  He adds that though Harper is “always believable,” her “late emergence from her shell of passivity makes the play problematic.”  In general, Feingold, who’s often a contrarian I’ve observed, asserts, “Along with the clearly intended moral ambiguities, Stephens proffers muddy dramaturgical uncertainties, presenting his heroine as a series of tentative hypotheses that don't equal a fully portrayed statement,” but continues, the playwright has “Upchurch's sharp, austerely clean-lined production to keep his vagaries from drifting away.”   In the New Yorker, Brown, who equivocates a lot in his review, starts off by saying, “Everything about Harper Regan—and everything about Harper Regan—feels dislocated . . . .  It’s a puzzling sensation, and sometimes Simon Stephens’s midlife-walkabout is merely that: puzzling.  Sometimes it approaches ghostly sublimity.”  Scott continues in this “on the one hand/on the other” vein:

The show’s a kind of comedy and Harper is a kind of clown, but the laughs, such as they are, reverberate inward, and they bruise.  And, occasionally, simply mystify.

Many of Harper’s run-ins and elliptical conversations have a stuttering, first-draft feel to them, and some simply seem extraneous—this might’ve been a one-act, were it not for the marginalia.  

Of Stephens’s “sequential but atomized vignettes,” Brown writes: “Some of these pas de deux are mesmerizing; others, eye-glazing; still others, strangely repetitive, as if looped.”  Upchurch’s staging, Brown adds, “often aggravates and underlines this agglomerative, ramblesome quality.”  In his ultimate analysis, however, Brown states that Harper Regan is “both probing and, yes, prurient.” 

[I don’t know if it says anything about this play or production, but I found that this crop of reviews contains a larger number of small factual errors (plus one grammar mistake) than I’ve seen before.  Maybe it has something to do with the review-writers’ having trouble focusing on the performance closely enough to catch the facts as they go by.  Two writers, for instance, misstated the age of Sarah, Harper’s daughter: Linda Winder in Long Island’s Newsday, who said the character was 14, and Jennifer Ferrar of the AP, who described her as “college-age.”  Sarah’s 17 (the same age as Tobias, the schoolmate Harper’s been stalking) but I can see where Ferrar’s misunderstanding might have come from.  Sarah goes to “college,” but it’s not an American-style post-high school institution; that’s what Europeans, including Brits, call “university.”  In the U.K. and the Commonwealth, “college” is a private secondary school, usually of high academic standing, for students 16 to 18 years old.  (In my junior year of high school, I went to the Collège du Léman near Geneva.)  And speaking of Tobias, two reviewers, New York’s Scott Brown and Suzy Evans of Back Stage, put his encounters with Harper on a “train” or “tube” (that’s the subway to Brits) platform.  In both scenes, they met at the Grand Union Canal, which Harper points out runs from London to Birmingham, making a bit of a deal of it.  Back Stage’s Evans also put the Regan’s suburban London home in “Oxbridge,” which isn’t actually a place at all.  (“Oxbridge” is the portmanteau name—think “Brangelina”—that refers to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.)  The Regans live in Uxbridge—just as the program states.  And Brown is the only reviewer to age poor Harper from 41 to 43.  Referring to a different meeting in the play, Marilyn Stasio wrote in Variety that Harper picked up James Fortune in an Internet café, but that skips a step.  Harper used a computer at the café to hook up with James; then they met in real life (at the hotel, I believe).  Stasio’s oddest slip, though, is her assertion that Harper has no reaction to Mickey’s vile anti-Semitic outburst” in the bar except to walk off with his leather jacket.  Really, Marilyn?  She busts a glass and stabs him in the neck, for Pete’s sake!   (Oh, and that grammatical error was committed by Joe Dziemianowicz in the Daily News when he wrote that Harper visited her mother “who she hasn’t talked to in years.”  Say it ain’t so, Joe!  Should be “whom she hasn’t talked to . . . .”  I hereby sentence you to stand in Times Square and apologize to the spirit of William Safire while receiving 20 lashes with a wet “On Language” column.)]


1 comment:

  1. 'Harper Regan" opened in Tel Aviv, as I noted above, in November 2009. When I sent a copy of my report on the New York première to my friend Helen in Tel Aviv, she wrote me back that she'd not only seen the play, but covered the Israeli début for the Jerusalem Post. Helen was nice enough to send me a copy of her JP notice, which ran in the paper on 2 December 2009. With Helen's permission, here is her review of 'Harper Regan':

    Harper Regan
    By Simon Stephens
    Translated and directed by Oded Kottler
    Gesher Theater

    Harper Regan (Liora Rivlin) wants time off to visit her dying father. Elwood Barnes (Dudu Niv), her thick-skinned workaholic boss, says no. When she gets home that evening, it's the same-old, same-old from emotionally hunched husband Seth (Dov Glikman) and rebellious teen daughter Sarah (Lucy Dubinchik). Harper runs, telling nobody where she's going. Her two day odyssey takes her from her London suburb to her native Stockport, near Manchester, and back home. On the way she encounters strange men, one in a pub, another in a hotel room, confronts the mother (Fira Kantor) she hasn't seen in two years, and learns some troubling truths.

    "What kind of a name is Harper?" is a recurring question that really asks "what kind of life is this?" and she has no answer. Harper perches uneasily on her life and if she returns home, it is not so much that she has found answers but because she has redefined the question. "Regret poisons," she says.

    Michael Karamenko's prison-like set of grey/brown walls, apertures and sliding panels complements the characters' mental agorophobia as they skirt, evade and hide their own realities, with a recurring frieze of a child jumping rope providing an ironic counterpoint.

    This is a dream role for an actress, but the talented Liora Rivlin is here oddly monochromatic as though what is happening to Harper happens only on the outside. Altogether, the production lacks nuance with everybody gabbling their lines at top speed. Harper Regan prods and pokes. Its words/ideas must have time to register, and Kottler has not allowed for that, which is a pity.

    Glikman and Dubinchik are effective as husband and daughter, Kantor makes a wonderfully smug mother and as Barnes, Niv injects an intriguing menace. As Tobias Rich, a teenager on the threshold of life, Daniel Tscharnish is appealing, but it is Boris Achanov who takes the honors. His Duncan Woolley, the mother's second husband, has the breadth and life the production lacks.

    —Helen Kaye

    Back on 12 September 2010, I published an article from Helen on Israeli summer entertainments for children, "Help! It's August: Kid-Friendly Summer Festivals in Israel." At the time, I reported that she promised to send in more reports on goings-on in Israel and though that promise has been long in coming to fruition, I now have two reports on the recent Acre Festival of Alternative Israeli Theatre. I'll be publishing the reports on ROT in the very near future.