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A CurtainUp Review
Our New Girl
By Elyse Sommer
The central theme revolves around the conflicts special to a high-powered professional woman when she has a child. Can she have it all? Should she have it all? Or are high level careers and motherhood incompatible?
What saves this from being done in by comparisons to similarly themed dramas, movies and books is that Harris knows how to create dramatic tension. A wordless, gasp-inducing opening scene involving the play's youngest cast member and a knife will have theater buffs wondering if it will evolve into a variation of Chekhov's gun. Harris's knack for integrating powerful silent moments into her characters' interchanges make scenes in which what you've anticipated comes to pass somehow feel fresh.
Harris has created characters whose individual flaws and agenda mesh into a watchable whole. Hazel, the to have or not have it all main character, is the most complex. As was the case with the Bush Theater production reviewed by our London critic Lizzie Loveridge ( review ), the audience's continued involvement with the story owes much to the actress playing her. Fortunately Atlantic Theater founding member Mary McCann does not disappoint.
McCann gives a formidable performance as the highly pregnant and frazzled Hazel who has given up her career as a high powered lawyer to run a home-based business in order to be full-time care taker to her eight year old son Daniel (Henry Kelemen, a 10-year-old with numerous film roles under his belt making an impressive stage debut).
Judging from the sleek kitchen with a large abstract painting that might even be a Franz Kline original, finances are not an issue. However, that slick but not especially homey (or convenient for a cook) kitchen apparently symbolizes the problems triggered by Hazel's decision to give up a prestigious career and have a second child.
Daniel has been a difficult child since birth and having his mother home has exacerbated his quirky eating and sleep habits. This, plus behavior difficulties in school, does little to make for an idyllic mother-son relationship. What's more, the savvy former lawyer has impulsively jumped into a home business venture inspired by an earth mother type Italian woman she met on a holiday. But th3 imported olive oil venture is hardly off to a promising start.
As if the troublesome child and equally troublesome business weren't enough, Richard (CJ Wilson), Hazel's successful plastic surgeon husband has a need for more meaningful adventures, which frequently takes him away to do more satisfying charitable work in disaster struck places like Haiti. These absences compound Hazel's tensions about being pregnant and on her own.
Richard's headstrong personality plus doctor's ego mentioned in the quote at the top of this review bring the play's fourth character into the picture: Annie (Lisa Joyce),a young Irish woman who Richard hired as a nanny without consulting his wife. While she seems like a fine candidate for the job, Hazel is understandably resentful to have a stranger arrive on her doorstep unannounced and without being consulted. Not a good start for either employer or employee!
While the play's second scene shows Hazel firmly determined to send Annie back to Ireland, she unsurprisingly does get to stay stay. Neither does it take a Sherlock Holmes to guess that the eager to please Nanny has her own dysfunctional history and that her presence is likely to bring the simmering tensions in this household to a full boil.
Joyce is excellent in revealing the yearnings and resentments beneath Annie's accommodating surface. However, both she and young Kelemen could work a bit harder on projecting more clearly.
No projection problems for CJ Wilson, however. He has a powerful voice that soars to the rafters, so that even someone with a hearing problem is unlikely to miss a word he utters. However, his Richard is such an unsympathetic, self-important character that you end up wishing you could shut him up. While Hazel is sensitive enough to be open to understanding the real cause of Daniel's troublesome behavior, Harris has left little room for Richard to come across as a genuinely good man if misguided as a husband and father.
Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch expertly oversees the escalating tensions. The production details are well handled by the designers, especially the scenes between the fifteen acts — some dimmed but with visible action, some blackouts.
I would have been even more impressed with Ms. Harris's ability to tell a basically familiar story affectingly if she could have avoided some rather glaringly overlooked reality checks. For instance, it's one thing to choose full time parenting but why in the world wouldn't someone in Hazel's financial circumstances have the sense to hire a house cleaner or house cleaning service to relieve her from those chores which have nothing to do with being a good or capable mom. And even stay-at-home, full-time moms who can't afford a nanny, will line up one or two reliable baby sitters for some time to themselves (which is something Hazel repeatedly says she desperately needs).
Finally, Hazel is still smart enough for her lawyer's training and caution to kick in when dealing with the unwanted nanny's legal rights. That makes it hard to believe that despite her emotional connection with the Italian woman whose product she plans to sell, it's unlikely that she would jump into a business she knows nothing about without some sort of research or a business plan.
My fussing about credibility gaps aside, I look forward to seeing more of this playwright's work.
Finally, as mentioned in my review of The Village Bike, opening on the same day as this one, this is the third British import by a woman playwright with different and yet similar agendas, seen in a two-week period.