Everything about Harper Regan — and everything about Harper Regan — feels dislocated, like a limb out of joint, numb and tender at the same time. It’s a puzzling sensation, and sometimes Simon Stephens’s midlife-walkabout is merely that: puzzling. Sometimes it approaches ghostly sublimity. This seems to depend entirely on the deployment of its central, title character, a 43-year-old wife and mother from the London exurbs (nobody here is from the center of anything) played with intensity, invisible precision, and quiet commitment by Mary McCann.
We meet Harper in a series of sequential but atomized vignettes, each performed in an ever-so-slightly different style, as she goes on a Dante-esque odyssey from Uxbridge — where money is tight, her marriage to troubled Seth (Gareth Saxe) is stalling out, and her daughter Sarah (Madeleine Martin) regards her with pity and disdain — to Stockport, near Manchester, where her father is dying. Harper’s estranged from her mother (Mary Beth Peil), estranged from her libido, and estranged from nearly everyone except strangers, whom she begins to engage in a series of ever-more-intense conversations and interactions, most of them soaked with the possibility of sex. Barely coming within a foot of one another, McCann and Stephen Tyrone Williams (playing a young student Harper flirts with on a train platform) softly set the room ablaze with carnal what-ifs and maybes. Later, Harper meets a handsome stranger from the Internet (Christopher Innvar) in a hotel room and transfixes us with her trademark combination of crushing directness and emotional evasion. She’s gradually realizing that her grip on probity, stability, and perhaps even sanity is based on avoidance; she’s trying to do something about that, however clumsily and (in one rattling instance) violently. 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. (The direction, by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, often aggravates and underlines this agglomerative, ramblesome quality.)
Still, there’s something both probing and, yes, prurient in Stephens’s sensibility. Harper Regan is, at bottom, a pilgrim’s progress between immorality and amorality. (Harper’s barmy boss, played in an Eric Idle vein by Jordan Lage, introduces this distinction in the play’s risky and not-quite-successful opening scene, a protracted, sketchlike bit of business that promises a very different tone than the one that eventually emerges and dominates.) His is a Britain at the end of its existential tether, an island in a rising sea of hopelessness; yet, he is, in his deflated way, a kind of besieged optimist. Stephens pleasures in writing halting, almost taunting encounters, as his characters reveal themselves in agonizing stripteases. (He was previously represented in New York by a much less mature work Bluebird, stunningly miscast with Simon Russell Beale and also directed by Upchurch.) Some of these pas de deux are mesmerizing; others, eye-glazing; still others, strangely repetitive, as if looped. But through it all, McCann, our governing mystery, holds firm. She’s the show here, and she performs a passive seduction on the audience, drawing us closer and closer — yet, strategically and effectively, never reveals too much. It’s alluring in the extreme. Without so much as a hip-cock, she’s created one of the most sensual human disasters I’ve seen onstage in a long while. “You’re quite sexy,” says Tobias, “Crazy people always are, a bit. Until you get up close to them.”
Harper Regan is playing at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater through October 28.
The Old Man and the Old Moon
Let’s say you’re one of those malcontents who wished Peter and the Starcatcher had been more of a full-tilt, heart-on-sleeve musical — or one of those who wished Once had been a tad less of one. Or let’s say you’re among the even smaller subset who demand that Mumford & Sons launch a sideline in shadow-puppetry and storytelling. Well, Straw Person, chances are The Old Man and the Old Moon — a sweet, saucy, folky, just-shy-of-emo evening of theatrical close-magic — won’t satisfy you either. (Because, frankly, you sound a little unsatisfiable.) But it’ll come pretty damned close.
Every once in a while, a new group of absurdly talented young performers band together and show us how delightfully uninhibited, how effortlessly inventive, how unapologetically and unpretentiously playful theater can be. The seven young men of PigPen Theatre Company (Ryan Melia, Matt Nuernberger, Arya Shahi, Dan Weschler, Curtis Gillen, Ben Ferguson, and Alex Falberg) are the latest swains to take up the banner of Cheap Thrills and carry it gloriously into New York’s ever-dysfunctional theater marketplace. (Former-and-future standard-bearers include Les Freres Corbusier and Fiasco.) Freshly graduated from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama, with some well-regarded Fringe work (The Nightmare already under their belts), these merry men — musicians, writers, and performers all — have devised a full evening’s entertainment from what looks to be the contents of a packrat grandparent’s basement. The stage is a shambles of raw wood, old furniture, and tchotchkes dangling from the ceiling.
Out of this bric-a-brac, the PigPen crew builds a pinewood-derby-car of a show, banjo-driven and raised-up in harmony, like a sea shanty. It’s a frowsy fable as shambolic as it is sweet, and what it means (which is, in sum, not much) matters less than how it’s told: A gruff old man (Melia) has a job tending to the moon, which leaks light at a steady pace; he fills it back up again, every night. But when his wife sets sail across the ocean, drawn on by a wistful, bewitching leitmotif, the old man abandons his post and goes to find her. The journey involves a crew of goofy sailors, a case of mistaken identity, a mighty battle, a heroic pooch, a sea monster, an unhinged ghost, and the End of the World. PigPen realizes these Hollywood setpieces with the ancient art of shadow-puppetry, which they seem to have cross-pollinated with blockbuster cinematography. (They’re given huge assists by designers Lydia Fine and Bart Cortwright.) The result is a junkshop fata morgana, a witty illusion of scale, paired with a zippy script (which winks, but never winks itself cockeyed), exquisitely composed and performed music that curls up in your brain and purrs for days, and masterly, chop-chop direction. The Old Man is an all-ages journey into the frontiers of undiluted imagination, where tweeness isn’t transcended so much as spun into gold. And if the whole doesn’t really go anywhere, well, that’s entirely beside the point. It’s how you get there, after all. That’s what puts this show — and its thrillingly talented creators — on the map.
The Old Man and The Old Moon is playing at The Gym at Judson through Nov 25.