Our New Girl
Profiles Theatre explores the troubled world of a frantic mother and a nanny with secrets.
In the subgenre of gothic thrillers involving child care, Henry James' The Turn of the Screw sets the standard. When it comes to angelic children who are deeply disturbed, The Bad Seed does likewise. Both of those dramas loom large in Nancy Harris' Our New Girl, now getting its Chicago premiere at Profiles Theatre.
Unfortunately, the shadows of those two works only serve to highlight the weaknesses in Our New Girl, a would-be realistic drama built on a wholly implausible plot and concerning characters that it's difficult to care about.
The trouble is apparent early on, as Harris sets up a situation that defies credibility. Hazel (Sarah Chalcroft) , a one-time high-powered attorney who gave up her career to be a full-time mom, is frantically rushing out to pick up her 8-year-old from school when a stranger arrives at her door, suitcase in hand. The newcomer, a twentysomething blonde named Annie (Miriam Canfield), says she's been hired by Hazel's absent husband Richard (Layne Manzer) to be the live-in nanny. Hazel does the exact opposite of what you'd expect a mother to do, especially given the fact that the harried mother was a high-powered shark of an attorney. There's only one reason for Hazel to behave as she does: If she didn't, there would be no plot.
After Annie moves in, she quickly develops a bond with Daniel, a bad-seed child who plays with knives and seems to hate his mother with a cold-eyed, sociopathic fervor. Richard, a plastic surgeon dedicated to humanitarian work in developing nations hit by natural disasters, also bonds with Annie, enthralling her with photos of the Haitian earthquake victims he's helped. Humanitarian work notwithstanding, Richard is selfish, insufferable and feckless and – like Annie and Daniel – so unlikable that you simply don't care what happens to him. Minus characters worth caring about and a story that's remotely believable, Our New Girl falters early on and never recovers.
Harris' two-act piece isn't entirely without merit. Hazel has a provocative, powerful monologue about mothers who regret having their children, a sentiment that's taboo in a world that venerates the maternal. Hazel's confession surely isn't as rare as the culture of most mommy bloggers would have everyone believe. Chalcroft taps into frustration, fear, and resentment of a woman who has sacrificed a rich, fulfilling life to raise a troubled, troubling, and thankless child. It's the only honest moment in Our New Girl, and it hits you in the gut. Meanwhile, Annie has dark confessions of her own to make, but they mainly involve undressing for Richard while Hazel is out.
The cast carries forth, under the direction of Joe Jahraus, on designer Tyler Reinert's believable rendition of an upscale kitchen. Knives figure prominently in the set and throughout the play, from the gleaming rows of stainless steel prominent in the kitchen to the opening moment, which features the silent, shadowy image of young Daniel lurking in the kitchen, brandishing a blade. All that ominous cutlery turns out to be for naught, a contrivance in violation of Chekhov's rock-solid gun principal (if there's a gun on the wall in Act 1, it better go off in Act 2). Like most of Our New Girl, it merely comes across as manipulative artifice.
Profiles has a decades-long history of staging gritty premieres that grip the heart as well as the brain. Our New Girl is a sorry break in that tradition.