In 1960s British cinema, an archetype developed of the frumpy or middle-aged woman who, brought to a dead stop by her boring or chaotic life, decided to change things with neither grace nor guile. In a series of mishaps she encounters monumental difficulties that ultimately lead her onto a somewhat brighter road. Think Lynn Redgrave in Georgy Girl or A Taste of Honey with Rita Tushingham. These amazing ladies were the spiritual ancestors of Harper Regan, a play about a contemporary working woman in a dull part of London (which ran from September 20th to November 4th at the Linda Gross Theater in New York City), with a challenging child and a husband of dubious morals, who, choked by the hamster wheel of her daily life, chooses simply to run away from home.

A few things precipitate Harper’s flight. Her beloved dad is dying and her glib and self-serving boss will not let her out of work to go to him. Her daughter is in school and barely needs her anymore while her husband is hiding out from accusations of child molestation that will not go away. She is unspeakably lonely and has exhibited extreme behavior: she has been stalking an attractive young man she saw on the street and has even struck up rudimentary conversation with him under very false pretenses. When she flees and finally reaches her childhood home, some bleak English backwater, her father has already passed away and Harper starts to unravel. She longs for the boy she stalked; almost gets picked up at a bar by a local bad boy; and does, finally, succumb to a traveling salesman at a seedy hotel. Meanwhile, her family is looking for her and has been in touch with her mom — who already knew from the hospital that Harper was in town but did nothing to connect with her until she shows up at her house. Mom has long been divorced from dad and married to a much younger, overly virile guy with his hands on her at all times, and has nothing but criticism for Harper (mostly that she feels her son-in-law truly IS a child molester) who collapses like a teenager caught in some unspeakable act until she finds the guts to stand up for herself. The past and present collide between her birth family and the one she made, and how she processes her emotions, returning to London and reconciling herself to her lot, is the point of the play.

The first act, while it features some marvelous writing and acting, comes off slow, and it lost a certain number of people at intermission, just as Harper is about to bed her traveling salesman. It goes too far in making the case for Harper’s unhappiness and confusion: yes, we get that she shouldn’t be stalking the cute college guy, that her daughter is more of an adult than she is, that her boss is a bastard and that her husband is a shadow figure who seemingly lacks character, so the dead horse is amply beaten — even with a low-key but strong and, one might say, charming performance by Stephen Tyrone Williams as the surprised college student Harper chases. The second act is far stronger and cohesive. Harper’s interactions with a mother who does not love or understand her (and the palpable though invisible wall between them) and with a husband who does both, are powerfully juxtaposed. At the end, when she’s sitting in her garden, reunited with her family and planning what plants will go in where, her husband comes to talk to her. His speech, set around the simple act of getting her and his daughter breakfast, is strong enough in its undertones of caring and gratitude to move an audience to tears — and perhaps gives Harper a sense of her own value and the reasons she needs to stick around.

While this play may have been better with a shorter first act, it has moments throughout where the language soars far and above what we normally see in theater. Harper’s initial scene with her boss (the fabulously ironic Jordan Lage) is full of dry humor and double meanings, very British indeed. The long list of male cast members are all strong, but especially Christopher Innvar as the traveling salesman with whom Harper hooks up and whose loneliness, lightly delineated in dance steps and an unwillingness to talk about his home situation, may be even more profound than hers. Mary Beth Peil as Harper’s mother gives one of the best performances in the play, full of self-righteous indignation, a lack of self-knowledge and contempt. Harper’s husband (played with self-deprecating aplomb by Gareth Saxe) stays in the background until the final moment, when he realizes what he says has more bearing on Harper’s next move than anything else. The issue here is that the play is smaller than the sum of its strongest parts — with a good cast and a script full of linguistic flourishes; it seems to be a song made up solely of a single note.

The playwright, Simon Stephens, is essentially a conversationalist of a pure English order, a wordsmith who lives in the land before “lol” or “omg” existed and whose love of language infuses itself best in some of the longer speeches, such as the one made by Harper’s husband that ends the play. It’s a vehicle not always well-appreciated by American audiences whose attention span is constantly shrinking, which is a shame. It also did not help that Mary McCann, a well-known actress, does not particularly shine as the title character. While she has the wrung out and tired look right, or when she steals a leather jacket from a barfly to try on that identity, she’s fine; but it’s in the meaningful moments that transcend metaphor where she seemed to disappear from the stage, such as when another character has the upper hand as in the scenes with her mother. I suspect it is in those scenes that Harper is truly supposed to grow rather than shrink.

Perhaps with a reworked first act and a slightly grittier lead, this play will resurrect. There are very few good emotional road trips out there in Theaterland, especially trips that prove you can go home again.

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