It’s a tried-and-true dramatic premise, but for all that, consistently worth investigating anew, because the fun and/or fascination can be in the variation. What happens when you introduce an anarchic presence into a stable environment? That’s the theme being explored by Chad Beguelin in his new play Harbor currently at 59E59.
The stable environment is the Sag Harbor home of a married, homosexual couple. Ted (Paul Anthony Stewart) is the older and the breadwinner, running his own business. He willingly and happily supports Kevin (Randy Harrison), an aspiring novelist with no other employment.
The anarchic presence is Kevin’s sister Donna (Erin Cummings), homeless, broke, pretty much living in a trailer in which her exasperated teenage daughter Lottie (Alexis Molnar) is forced to share her peripatetic existence.
Donna drops in, just barely announced, on her brother, what is supposed to be a short visit becomes a very extended stay, and in part we’re also made to question the meaning of stability. Is Donna’s disruptiveness truly an alchemical game changer? Or merely a trigger to set off a volatile dynamic already primed to bubble to the surface?
I’m a big believer in avoiding spoilers, so the rest of this review will perforce have to be shorter than ideal and, where the plot is concerned, a bit elliptical.
While Harbor is a thoroughly professional play, directed in a thoroughly professional manner by Mark Lamos, and while, indeed, that seems to be quite enough for much of the audience, you may be among those, as I was, who are not particularly drawn in. What holds us back?
When Donna arrives, she has a bit of a bombshell to drop—which surprises not only the married couple, but her daughter as well. When the subsequent scene starts, several critical months have gone by. Donna and Lottie are still houseguests and a point of no return is imminent. We can see that point coming, there's a serious ticking clock coounting down, the implications are monumental, and the dialogue neatly conveys the narrative information.
But the behavior, the human factor, the nuance of relationships that have turned and deepened, is not particularly in evidence. For all that the play is unambiguous about the passage of time, we don’t get the sense that the characters’ lives continue offstage between scenes, that there has been a genuine transition. It seems merely that the actors have reappeared to deliver new information. And this, as the play progresses, leaves you feeling a sense of calculation. I won’t go as far as to say that the play is schematic; at intermission I could not have predicted its ending. But my definite and conscious impression at intermission was that I was less watching characters than puzzle pieces being moved about—and sometimes acting in a manner contrary to the demands of circumstance, for the sake of being positioned for the next development toward the ultimate twist. The end of the play only verified that there had indeed been a long-game irony in play; and again, while there’s nothing wrong with the classic device of reversal, it suffers mightily when the mechanics are apparent almost to the point of transparency.
Amplifying this, Mark Lamos’s direction favors a kind of slick, quick strokes (one might even argue broad strokes) characterization that would be more appropriate to a certain kind of light comedy or comedy of manners—bordering on farce. Which is not to say overdone, precisely, but rather overmanaged and overbright…the verisimilitude of naturalism isn’t quite there, which made me constantly aware of actors at work, lines having been memorized, blocking having been rehearsed, pacing having been imposed. And this has naturally been reflected in the casting too. The quartet are able and agreeable company, but what they’re asked to deliver, and the gusto with which they do, is part and parcel of Mr. Lamos’s imprimatur.
I want to restate for the record, Harbor has its proponents, it’s not dull and it’s delivered attractively. I just think that, despite its inherent and appropriate mix of comedy and drama, ultimately, a play that’s supposed to provoke thought and be a little unsettling shouldn’t be so breezy an experience.
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