Sex, Death, Creepy Desire; Foote Family Spinsters: Review

Hallie Foote in "Him," a new drama by her sister, Daisy Foote. The play is having its world premiere off-Broadway at 59E59 Theatres. Photographer: James Leynse/O&M Co. via Bloomberg

The set for “Harper Regan,” at the Atlantic Theater’s off-Broadway mainstage in Chelsea, is a wall of gray slabs that pop up or down to reveal a dining area or hotel room.

Sterile and somewhat distancing, it serves as a good metaphor for Simon Stephens’s sexless play about the search for, and the limits of, desire.

The title character, played with maddening restraint by Mary McCann, is a middle-aged wife, mother and family provider who risks losing her suffocating job when she decides to visit her dying father.

She has two out of town encounters. The first is with a drunken lout who spews anti-Semitic venom before Harper cuts off their boozy flirtation. The other is with a married Craig’s List pickup who has the virtues of patience, tenderness and a willingness to have sex on a hotel room floor.

Staged by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, “Harper Regan” promises a lot more than it delivers, putting it squarely in the tradition of Stephens’s “Bluebird,” seen at the Atlantic in 2011. Though Harper is onstage for all of the play’s two hours, I didn’t come away knowing much more about her, let alone feeling connected, than I did at the start.

There are two standout performances, from Jordan Lage, as the creepiest boss you’d ever imagine and, despite a voice that could shatter glass, Madeleine Martin as Harper’s teenage daughter Sarah.

Through Oct. 28 at 336 W. 20th St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; Rating: **1/2

About ‘Him’

Although it has moved from East Texas to rural New Hampshire, the Foote family business carries on with “Him,” a compelling new play about siblings confronting history and destiny in the long shadow of a departed parent.

The business is drama -- indeed theater itself. “Him” is by Daisy Foote, the playwright daughter of Horton Foote, who died in 2009 after a lifetime of writing about the Texas generations of Vaughn and Robedaux families modeled on his own parents.

And it vibrates with life thanks to a defining performance by Hallie Foote, muse to both her father and her sister.

Human Weakness

With “Him,” Daisy offers a vision of human weakness that’s somewhat tougher, if no less empathic, than her father’s.

The play, receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway’s Primary Stages, opens with grown siblings Pauline (Hallie Foote) and Henry (Tim Hopper) stumbling woozily into the shabby and barely genteel house they share with their mentally challenged brother Farley and their unseen, dying father.

It’s 2003. Pauline and Henry are struggling to keep the family dry-goods store going in an era of supersize Stop & Shops and increasingly demanding customers.

They’re both spinsters, Henry moodily pining for a married man he fantasizes has eyes for him; Pauline, embittered, impoverished and yearning for the child that might have come had she not aborted an early pregnancy.

It isn’t until after the death of the title character and the revelation of an unexpected inheritance, that a rift develops between Pauline and Henry.

Mild Shocks

There’s a too-neat secondary plot involving Farley and his similarly afflicted girlfriend Louise (they are sensitively, if discomfitingly, played by Adam LeFevre and Adina Verson). The two threads eventually are interwoven in a denouement that startles with the low-voltage shock that is another Foote family trademark.

There is, however, nothing low voltage about Hallie Foote’s performance, in an acutely realized production under Evan Yionoulis’s direction. She finesses the broadest range of emotions with such economy of movement -- a piercing look, a raised eyebrow -- that character registers as a slow burn until we’re engulfed in its heat. The Foote family business thrives.

Through Oct. 28 at Primary Stages, 59 E. 59th St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; Rating: ****

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars and Rich Jaroslovsky on tech.

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