Rachel Hauck’s layered set beautifully illustrates what Simon Stephens’ “Harper Regan” only attempts to achieve. The play opens with an office scene in which the title character asks for time off from work to visit her ailing father. The set then literally unfolds to become Harper’s home, where her teenage daughter and unemployed husband discuss her troubles at work and her need to see her dad. The set morphs two more times, illustrating the many facets of Harper’s existence—work, home life, emotional life—though the script fails to grasp these layers in the same way.
Taking place over the course of two days, the story follows Harper as she struggles through a midlife crisis, leaving her husband and daughter in Oxbridge, England, on the outskirts of London, to visit her comatose father in a hospital in Manchester. Along the way she wrestles with her own self-worth, getting into a bar brawl, engaging in an extramarital affair, and fighting with her mother. As she discusses her father’s condition with her spouse and child before she leaves, the frenzy her departure throws them into is absurd, even if she doesn’t tell them of her plans. Her husband calls her mother to learn where she is, and still it’s a huge deal that she left. It’s only two days, for goodness sake. Harper’s motivation is clear and merited, but Stephens pushes her family’s panic far too hard.
Yes, the characters are flawed. Harper’s husband can’t find work because of a child-pornography case in which he confessed to being guilty. Her daughter is going through that dark stage that all adolescents find themselves in, so it’s kind of a shock that she even cares about her mother’s absence. The reasons for Harper’s behavior during her journey are also unclear, but Mary McCann does what she can to shed light on this woman’s problems. The actor starts off appropriately self-conscious and makes riskier choices as the play progresses, though Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s stiff direction keeps Stephens’ dialogue from flowing and causes the interactions to feel calculated. Madeleine Martin has a natural stage presence as Harper’s daughter, though her voice projection makes her performance almost too self-aware. The highlight is Stephen Tyrone Williams’ portrayal of Tobias Rich, the 17-year-old stranger who triggers Harper’s sudden journey in a random meeting on a tube platform.
Ultimately, in trying to complicate the uncomplicated, “Harper Regan” is far too muddled for its own good.
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th St., NYC. Oct. 10–Nov. 4. (212) 279-4200, www.ticketcentral.com, or www.atlantictheater.org. Casting by Telsey + Company/Will Cantler.
Critic’s Score: C