Every woman is entitled to her mid-life crisis, but the elaborate meltdown that Simon Stephens engineers in “Harper Regan” is wasted on an uninspiring character. Bore that she is, the lady does have the good fortune to be played by Mary McCann, who also left her mark on “Bluebird,” an earlier Stephens play that, while equally episodic, had a less artificial and better designed structure and didn’t work so hard at being quirky. Both plays originated in London, where this prolific scribe, currently under commission to the National, is all the rage.
McCann, a founding member of the Atlantic, has the likeability gene that wins instant sympathy for the title character when she asks her boss for a few days off so she can travel up from London to visit her dying father in Manchester. This sadistic executive (wickedly played by Jordan Lage) insults, ignores, threatens, toys with and otherwise torments Harper — who submits to his abuse without a whimper, even when he makes lewd reference to her 17-year-old daughter.
It’s a sweet bit of black humor, played with a properly nasty edge under the helming of Gaye Taylor Upchurch, who also directed “Bluebird” last season.
Regrettably, too many scenes in this schematic piece are constructed in much the same way, with someone bludgeoning someone else, often by wielding words like a weapon. In one episode, Harper verbally overpowers a “completely beautiful” 17-year-old schoolboy she accosts on a bridge overlooking a canal. A few scenes later, it’s Harper’s turn to be overwhelmed by a vulgar, fast-talking journalist she meets in a pub.
Stephens occasionally allows some communication in these two-character encounters, which intensify after Regan, who abandoned home and work to visit her father, arrives at the hospital to find that he’s already died. One moving connection is made in the posh hotel suite where Regan goes with a horny but courtly married man (beautifully played and sweetly sung by musical stage veteran Christopher Innvar) she picked up at an Internet cafe.
But more often, Regan confounds the strangers she meets on her travels by injecting non sequiturs into her eccentric conversation and ignoring whatever they might have to say for themselves. Not even a vile anti-Semitic outburst from that yahoo journalist gets a reaction from her — although she later walks off with his bad-boy leather jacket.
Harper’s behavior is just as erratic on the domestic front. She puts up with her selfish daughter’s abusive attacks (delivered by Madeleine Martin in the metallic whine of an industrial saw), but she won’t listen when her own open-hearted mother (a lovely cameo performance from Mary Beth Peil) tries to tell her a few harsh truths.
Gareth Saxe is a personable actor who does his best with the impossible role of Regan’s husband, Seth, who is unemployed (and unemployable) for reasons that are never openly discussed or even acknowledged. That’s just not how life is lived in this household, which sustains itself on lies, evasions, and much chatter about nothing that matters.
It took some courage for Regan to leave this place. Too bad she had to come back.