“HARBOR” – world premiere at Westport Playhouse, thru September 15
By Tom Nissley
Chad Bequelin’s new play, “Harbor,” has opened to great fanfare at the Westport Country Playhouse, in a production with a great set (Andrew Jackness), which includes segments that slide in and out on both sides of the stage, and courtesy of equally great lighting (Japhe Weideman), hold our attention in the cameo moments perfectly. The costumes (Candice Donnelly) are well chosen, and the sound design (John Gromada) enhances a carefully selected cast that has been directed by Mark Lamos. The four actors are solid and they carry this story of varieties of marriage and mother/fatherhood well.
Because it’s brand new, “Harbor,” which has a rather complicated script, offers opportunity for some questions about what is in the background and the foreground of this play.
On the surface, Donna (Kate Nowlin) and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Lottie (Alexis Molnar), are arriving unannounced for a visit to Donna’s brother Kevin (Bobby Steggert) and his husband/partner Ted (Paul Anthony Stewart), at their home in Sag Harbor, New York. Donna refers to it as “Fag Harbor” and is derisive about her brother having taken a hyphenated last name with Ted. She and Lottie have driven across the country from California in the van which is also their only home. Bag ladies of sorts, or van ladies, perhaps, [other scripts that may have inspired Donna and Lottie’s characters include Alan Bennett’s “The Lady in the Van,” and Morton Wishengrad’s “The Rope Dancers.”] they bring with their nonchalant selves both the odor of van life and a closeted desperation that is searching for a better quality of life.
Ted is a distinguished architect who has reframed the inside of their Victorian gingerbread home and given it old plank floors with a special hue. Everything about it is clean and in fact, sterile. Happy to keep it that way, he wants NOT to own a dog, and especially not to live with CHILDREN! In a hilarious scene, when pushed to explain his disaffection with kids in general, Ted delivers a protracted rant about how even the thought of parenting affects him! Stewart’s explosion is amazing. It expands Ted’s character but also adds a stereotypical dimension to the bounce of his clean and mean approach. For a moment “Harbor” feels like a sit-com. The moment will be repeated as other characters unfold bits and pieces that seem exaggerated.
In a program note, Chad Bequelin explains that in his own gay partnership of ‘nearly twenty years’ he has begun to think about how to add children to the equation, and that others are putting pressure on him to do so. In the play, he allows Donna to perform that function, when she quietly announces that she, besides being a free-wheeling and non-thinking singer without a career, is again pregnant. She decided not to have an abortion. [WHY?] And that she couldn’t give up her child to just anyone, but would like to leave the baby behind with Kevin and Ted, largely because she remembers Kevin’s liking to dress as a mommy and give orders when he was a child. This in turn opens windows into the unexplained non-functioning Kevin, a “writer” with way more than a writer’s block, who has been a good frilly housemate to Ted, happy to have an imagined career and security from Ted’s bank account. Ted has been happy with that arrangement, too. Bequelin may be intending to expose that sort of arrangement as not-OK, but many marriages in the past and present have conformed to some version that resembles it. What could happen to Ted and Kevin if the microscope descends? We’ll have a chance to find out.
Lottie’s character, in the meantime, seems carefully drawn, and Ms. Molnar does a great job of showing her smarts and her despair. If Donna had a rough childhood, as she claims, Lottie’s is a disaster. Her schooling is informal and on the run. “Van School.” She reads classics that she buys at Good Will for 25 cents because the cover is torn off. Mostly her free time is spent being the caretaker of her neurotic mother. Lottie has inspired Ted to be a responsible parent-figure. She’s fifteen, so not quite an infant burden. When he learns that she’s had a recent birthday with no celebration, he cooks up one, complete with cake, surprises, gifts, and flair. The festive mood collapses when Donna sobs and shrieks that no one gives her a party, and then tells Ted that she is planning to leave her baby for its two uncles to raise. This scene is grossly over-done, but it does provide a last straw walk-out opportunity for Ted, who, when Kevin finds him later on a park bench, takes a chance and tells his partner some unvarnished fragments about their life as a couple.
The play has a blood-is-thicker-than water ending, with other problems, but I’m not going to describe them because when you go to see “Harbor” you ought to have some surprises. It’s a world premiere, I’d say with short legs, so perhaps you should not hold back. The acting is good, and the provocative issues – so many – that are sprinkled in the mix will give you something to chat about for days or months to come. Arrange tickets at www.westportplayhouse.org or call 203-787-4282.
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre. September 3, 2012