In Charlotte Gwinner’s well-calibrated production, Irish scribe Nancy Harris’ new play “Our New Girl” walks an impressive stylistic tightrope between suspense, satire, and psychological drama. Script concerns an affluent London family whose lives are disrupted when Irish nanny Annie (Denise Gough) arrives to look after troubled 8-year-old son Daniel (Jonathan Teale at the perf reviewed). The fact that harried, pregnant wife Hazel (Kate Fleetwood) doesn’t expect her suggests “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” territory. But play blossoms into a convincing, mature exploration of the desires and frustrations of four scarred souls, managing to throw in good laughs along the way.
That young Daniel has issues is cued in a wordless prologue in which he calmly prepares to slice off his ear with a kitchen knife. The following scenes suggest the causes behind Daniel’s dysfunction, while extending the idea of physical injury belying inner wounds.
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Hazel recently left a career as a high-flying lawyer to start her own business and focus on mothering, but there is little apparent affection between mother and son. The antiseptically gleaming surfaces of her state-of-the-art kitchen (excellent design by Morgan Large) further indicate the frigidity of this family unit.
Plastic surgeon husband Richard (Mark Bazeley) assuages his first-world guilt — and massages his considerable sense of self-worth — with charity trips to the developing world. The pair are so disconnected that Richard hired Annie via email while in Haiti and didn’t manage to tell Hazel she was coming.
Early on, Annie seems like a godsend as she tunes into Daniel’s needs, but Gwinner’s prod is too multi-layered to invite unequivocal sympathy with the character.
The one somewhat weak link in the writing is the lack of nuance in this central male role (though Bazeley brings considerable bravado); Harris seems more in her element with female characters.
Indeed, production’s most remarkable achievement is the complexity of the character of Hazel, particularly as played by the ever-more-impressive Fleetwood. She has a brittle presence, which here initially blocks identification, but slowly the writing and her thesping help us warm to her. The story of the contempo career woman who wants it all is a well-trodden cliche, but there is originality and honesty in Harris and Fleetwood’s portrait of a mother coming to terms with her commitments. The story loops back to that initial image — Daniel (the amazingly poised Teale) with the knife to his ear — but then takes us to a final moment that feels at once unexpected and inevitable.
This is vintage Bush Theater fare: clean, tight production values that focus all attention on writing and performance. And, following on from her first major production and the current revival at London’s Gate of “The Kreutzer Sonata,” her Tolstoy adaptation that’s playing at Gotham’s La MaMa in March, Harris offers further indication of the breadth and maturity of her writing skills. This new girl’s going places.