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Our New Girl

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Henry Kelemen and Mary McCann
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia

Wondering what the most suspenseful moment is in New York theatre right now? It occurs in Our New Girl, the play by Nancy Harris that just opened at Atlantic Stage 2. Spoiler alert: It involves one character holding a chair for another.

Hmm, that doesn't sound too nail-biting in writing, does it? But trust me, as an integral element of Nancy Harris's surprisingly absorbing play and Gaye Taylor Upchurch's sharply honed production, the situation will leave you on the edge of your seat and perhaps even gasping or shielding your eyes. (Yes, both things happened at the performance I attended.)

The accomplishment here from Harris, an Irish playwright whose work is new to New York, isn't that she's able to send chills up and down your spine with clockwork regularity. It's that she's able to do so without deploying traditional components of horror like a haunted house, unexpected loud noises, ghosts, or monsters (though, come to think of it, a tarantula is a minor supporting character), but instead by recasting everyday disturbances in uniquely unsettling ways.

The implication of these moments when they arrive is that, under "normal" circumstances, they wouldn't inspire so much as a single goose pimple. But things have stopped being normal for this present-day London family. Hazel (Mary McCann) is a former lawyer who gave up practicing when she became pregnant for the second time, and is now running a home business selling imported olive oil. Her husband, Richard (C.J. Wilson), is a doctor who volunteers in foreign countries after they're wracked by natural disasters and brings home from his travels a few too many photos of humanity at its lowest and neediest.

Both parents seem to have lost control of their eight-year-old son, Daniel (Henry Kelemen), whose teachers are concerned about his behavior in school, which includes looking a bit too long at his new Chinese classmate. With Hazel stressed and still adjusting to both her stay-at-home-mom career and Daniel, with whom she doesn't easily get along, Richard hires a nanny from Ireland, Annie (Lisa Joyce). Or so Annie insists when she shows up for her first day of work: Richard neglected to mention it to Hazel, and now that he's on a rescue mission in Haiti and not answering his phone, he can't confirm Annie's story.

C.J. Wilson and Lisa Joyce
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia

Hazel and Annie's first meeting is where Harris brings us into the action, and she keeps the questions coming. It may well look like there's a romance brewing between Richard and Annie, which finds Annie integrating herself more into Daniel's life than Hazel does and becoming the more trusted woman of the house. But there's every bit as much reason to believe that Hazel, disoriented and hormonal, is inventing conspiracies, and projecting that paranoia onto her son—whom it appears she sees, admittedly not without some reason, as a demon in lamb's clothing.

For most of the play, Harris keeps our gaze and our perspective firmly focused on Hazel, which lets Upchurch make the atmosphere a dark and unforgiving one that keeps you as uncertain as Hazel of where the truth lies. The set (by Timothy R. Mackabee) and lights (David Weiner), awash in elegant monochrome infected at points with pockets of shocking color, even reinforce shadows and silhouettes as the dominant lights in Hazel's life. It really becomes a home and a play where you cannot be entirely sure what awaits in the next room.

So good is Harris at maintaining this razor's-edge mood that it's difficult not to be disappointed when she finally tips her hand. Late in the second act, you learn what's actually happening, and that cracks the lens through which you view most of the crucial characters; the key scene, if removed from the play entirely, would shore up Hazel's isolation, rather than either demolishing it or justifying it (sorry, that's as much as I'm willing to reveal). It's worth noting, though, that Harris recovers from this and spins out a fine conclusion, but some clumsy contortions on her part are required to regain her lost momentum.

Even so, McCann is superb as Hazel, completely capturing a headstrong woman who's being driven to absolute weaknesses by circumstances beyond her control. So solid, so forthright, in the opening scene, McCann lets Hazel slowly disintegrate as her entire belief system collapses around her. And when Hazel has nothing left but rage, McCann brandishes it with an electrifying force that proves this is someone who's willing and able to go down fighting. She lets us see every minute detail of this extraordinarily ordinary person.

Joyce and Wilson are almost as good, playing both the perceptions and the realities of their characters with an exquisite care that leaves you feeling just as out of sorts as Hazel. Because Annie, whose troubled past may be an indicator of how far she's willing to go now, is a juicier part, Joyce makes a slightly stronger impression; she spares no expense playing a young woman who needs validation and shelter wherever she can find it. Kelemen is a bit vacant as Daniel, and has trouble both making his lines heard and keeping his accent consistent, but he successfully balances being touching and being creepy—no easy task for an actor, let alone a 10-year-old one.

What makes Kelemen's performance work is ultimately what also makes the play work: You never know what's coming next. Daniel, like Hazel, may seem the aggressor one moment and the victim the next, the instigator of a crime in this scene but a witness to an even greater one ten minutes down the line. That's the most compelling take-away from Our New Girl: There are no straight lines or easy answers in life, and the most innocuous things, when viewed in the right (or wrong) frame of mind, can also be the most terrifying.

Our New Girl
Through June 29
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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