First impressions aren't everything. Over the course of two intense hours at Atlantic Theater Company's Stage 2, your flash judgments are likely to make a complete 180 with Nancy Harris' brilliant new play, Our New Girl. Your blood will boil throughout, first at a simmer and then at a fever pitch. Under the deft direction of Gaye Taylor Upchurch, the four-person ensemble takes the audience into an impossibly frustrating situation and forces us to live there. Feeling this angry rarely feels as enlightening as it does here.
The story takes place in the eat-in kitchen of a posh London home. Subtle light penetrates the sheer drapes hanging over the above-the-sink window and gleams off the stainless steel appliances (brilliantly naturalistic lighting by David Weiner). Little bottles of olive oil congregate in strategic colonies all over the room. A giant Rorschach-esque painting hangs on the exposed stone of the upstage wall. With this not-too-subtle touch, scenic designer Timothy R. Mackabee seems to be suggesting that our perceptions of this play will say a lot more about us than it will about the people depicted.
Hazel (Atlantic Acting School executive director Mary McCann) is a successful attorney who has walked away from her career to be a full-time mum. She made this decision after observing, on a recent holiday to Sicily, a pregnant-in-the-kitchen mother of four named Alessandra. While Alessandra made motherhood look easy, Hazel makes it look like a death march. Her son, Daniel (Henry Kelemen) is exhibiting increasingly disturbing behavior. Hazel's side business (importing and selling Sicilian olive oil) is faltering, crowding her home with an always-growing excess stock. On top of that, she is very pregnant with her second child. All the while, her doctor husband, Richard (CJ Wilson), is on a charitable mission to Haiti, leaving Hazel to fend for herself. When she sends him an SOS, he responds by hiring Annie (Lisa Joyce), a full-time nanny from Ireland. Hazel insists she doesn't need a nanny, but with her life crumbling around her, she's not exactly in a position to say no to extra help.
McCann (who is reunited here with her Harper Regan director) gives a stunningly dynamic performance. She's a harried mother whose contempt for the younger Irishwoman newly arrived at her doorstep is barely masked by a perfunctory British cordiality. She quickly lets down her guard of politeness. Within the first few days of Annie's employment, she witnesses Hazel berate and brush off her hyperactive and downright weird son. (At such a young age, Kelemen has already mastered the art of the creepy stare.)
As Annie the nanny, Joyce expertly unpacks a character that appears naive, but is actually undeniably shrewd. Like a latter-day Eve Harrington, she attempts to kill us with kindness, all the while carefully undermining Hazel's Margo Channing. Of course, like Eve, Annie is unwittingly doing the bidding of a far more sinister character.
When Richard finally comes back from Haiti, his presence adds gasoline to a smoldering fire. Wilson is simultaneously handsome, charming, and repulsive as the condescending and gently misogynistic doctor. "Hazel only bought this because she is having a baby and there are a lot of hormones in her body and she didn’t — completely think it through," Richard explains to Daniel after a big fight about a secret pet that Hazel bought for her son. (There were audible gasps and hisses from the audience at this moment.)
Yes, these are the kind of "modern" parents who allow their children to refer to them by their first names. That kind of liberal, urbane child-rearing (and its hypocrisy) is singled out for special ridicule in Harris' blistering text. At the same time, Our New Girl is a damning indictment of the patriarchy and how it continues to pervade even the seemingly most forward-thinking households. Harris has a special ability to attack an issue from several perspectives, giving an equally powerful voice to all sides.
All of that would be intellectually satisfying, but not nearly so emotionally engaging if it weren't for Upchurch's hair-raising direction. Much of the action features an incredibly pregnant Hazel waddling around a stage littered with dangerous and sharp objects. She casually slices bread with a huge knife while having a heated exchange with Annie. You cannot help but grip your seat in fearful anticipation. Such moments happen in nearly every scene, but the effect never dulls as the play progresses. Sound designer Stowe Nelson keeps our nerves on edge by populating the transitions with increasingly tense and cinematic chords.
Our New Girl is a thriller in the truest sense, with a realistic premise that only serves to make its implications all the more disturbing. You'll walk away stimulated intellectually, emotionally, and physically from this roller coaster of a play.