Linda Powell plays Agatha, and Chasten Harmon plays Emilie in Jen Silverman's The Moors, directed by Mike Donahue, at the Duke on 42nd Street.
Linda Powell plays Agatha, and Chasten Harmon plays Emilie in Jen Silverman's The Moors, directed by Mike Donahue, at the Duke on 42nd Street.
(© Joe Chea)

Life is not easy in the foggy desolation of The Moors. Jen Silverman's laugh-out-loud dark comedy, now making its New York premiere in a Playwrights Realm production at the Duke on 42nd Street, gently spoofs the Brontë sisters, who gave us Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, while treating us to a humorous (and brutal) take on the instability of gender roles. These women, unlike the Brontës', are anything but subject to the desires of men. Instead, Silverman shows us their passions as they wrest their destinies from the savage land around them.

Governess Emilie (a poised yet seductive Chasten Harmon) arrives at the home of Agatha (an imposing Linda Powell) after ostensibly being summoned by Agatha's brother, Branwell, who is mysteriously absent. The attention-starved, childlike adult Huldey (played with delightful eccentricity by Birgit Huppuch) is overjoyed to meet her new governess, someone who might want to read her "private" diaries. Marjory, the gruff scullery maid, who is called Mallory when she works in the parlor (Hannah Cabell in a hilarious performance), oversees the house. But Agatha wants Emilie for an insidious reason, and Huldey is willing to kill to get more attention. As the two sisters carry out their individual plots, the misty moors beckon the women toward their fate. And what exactly happened to Branwell, anyway?

Silverman and director Mike Donahue have created an atmosphere in The Moors that is at once mysterious, menacing, and savagely funny. Dane Laffrey's set design is simple enough, with two stately chairs and a sideboard to represent the parlor and (in a Monty Pythonesque joke) every other room in the house. But it also allows for the spewing of almost ever-present fog, which billows from beneath and through holes in the large back wall. Combined with Jen Schriever's eerie lighting, the fog becomes intimately connected to the storytelling, symbolizing the confused haze that Emilie wanders through as she negotiates the unfamiliar terrain of her new situation.

A quirky subplot runs through The Moors. It involves a dog, called Mastiff (played with dry humor by Andrew Garman), who falls in love with a Moor-hen (a sweetly innocent yet unexpectedly savvy Teresa Avia Lim). Blinded by the fog, she has crashed into the house and injured herself. Mastiff, neglected by the sisters, finds respite from his loneliness and existential dread while Moor-hen recuperates by his side. But when his needy side gets the better of him, Moor-hen starts to have second thoughts about continuing their relationship. It's a situation that many will relate to, and its final scene is certainly memorable, but this sidebar of a story, despite fine performances, feels tacked on, with little thematic relation to the main plot.

The central story of intrigue and double-crossing goes on autopilot for a while as Agatha and Emilie's relationship congeals. Yet Powell, dressed in an august, gorgeous, period-appropriate dark dress (brilliantly designed costumes by Anita Yavich), always commands the stage, while Harmon grabs our attention as her initially withdrawn character reveals a scheming side too. Cabell gets loads of laughs as the grumpy, pregnant scullery maid with typhus, and Huppuch plays the Jan Brady-like Huldey with delicious camp, making an entrance in Act 2 with curls and a pink dress as though she could be the lead in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane Eyre?

Despite a few drowsy moments and an odd fantasy sequence near the end, The Moors delights with its insightful and subversive edginess, toppling the male-oppressed milieus of the Brontës and taking strong, passionate female characters to new heights.