BWW Reviews: Chad Beguelin's Character-Driven HARBOR Premiere at Westport Country Playhouse
The theme of what makes a family is at the heart of Harbor, the world premiere of Chad Beguelin's first non-musical play. Beguelin, who has earned two Tony Award nominations for Best Score and Best Book of a Musical for The Wedding Singer in 2006, and co-wrote the score for Elf the Musical, proves he is serious competition for any established Broadway playwright.
The play deals with the issue facing many homosexual couples who have been married as various states have made gay marriages legal. When will they start a family? Are they planning to adopt or have a surrogate? In Harbor, Kevin (Bobby Steggert) reluctantly defers to Ted (Paul Anthony Stewart) about keeping their marriage child-free. Enter Kevin's sister, Donna (Kate Nowlin), who arrives unexpectedly at the couple's Sag Harbor home with her 15-year-old illegitimate daughter, Lottie (Alexis Molnar), and all hell breaks loose.
Quick background: Ted is a successful architect and Kevin is an aspiring writer who has been laboring for 10 years on a novel that will never get published. In fact, he can't even complete the copy for a brochure about Sag Harbor, the town in which they've lived for years. Donna has found more success as a grifter than as a singer, and that's not saying much. Ted is determined to avoid "a Blanche Dubois situation" and urges Kevin to encourage them to leave a.s.a.p.
Not so simple. Kevin and Donna have the close relationship of siblings who are survivors of a seriously dysfunctional family. To make things worse, Kevin is emotionally as well as financially needy, while Donna is selfish, manipulative, cynical and "a certified cuckoo clock." She drops a bomb on the once serene household by telling her brother that she's pregnant and wants him and Ted to raise her baby daughter.
The strength of the play is that the character-driven plot keeps the audience members on their toes. The characters are complex, not formulaic. Ted considers children a "bacterial laden petri dish," yet he his kindness and generosity towards his partner's niece is genuine. Kevin used to take charge when he and Donna were kids, and he finally regains his mojo when he needs to. Lottie now takes charge when Donna is plastered. She can hold her own when it comes to being cynical, but her desire to hear her biological father's voice and see his face is heartbreaking. And Donna, for all her crassness, is determined to give her soon to be born daughter a good life, and she will do what it takes to get the people she trusts to agree. Just don't count on a sweet, neat ending.
The casting is perfect. Paul Anthony Stewart shines as Ted. Alexis Molnar, a high school senior, is thoroughly credible as the level-headed "van schooled" teenager who is highly literate because "classic books are only a quarter at Goodwill." Both play characters who wear the albatross of being the responsible ones for those around them, yet they remain fluid and dignified throughout the play. Bobby Steggert is in fine form as the sensitive, floundering Kevin. Kate Nowlin totally nails the complex role as the tempestuous Donna. She takes no prisoners, even dragging the audience members into Donna's messy life and rewarding them with her innate, albeit rough, strength and even honor. She knows the right thing to do. As shambolic as her life is, her older daughter is turning out all right.
The production's only disappointment is the set design. Ted had an architectural firm with several employees and did commercial as well as residential design until the Great Recession hit. Donna remarks that "the house looks like a wedding cake," but Andrew Jackson's scenic design reflected neither her impression nor any suggestion of Ted's talent. What's more surprising is that Jackson had created a stunning set for last year's production of Lips Together, Teeth Apart.This Sag Harbor house had pedestrian furniture that seemed to have been placed in the garage of a house that had an overabundance of grey shingles and little architectural interest. Sorry, but I expected more. Then there's the pay phone from which Donna calls Kevin to announce that she's just three blocks away. Good luck finding a pay phone in this decade. Besides, since Donna and Lottie live in a van, they need cell phones.
Ignore these small flaws, and you will have a terrific time. This critic missed some of the lines because the audience was roaring with laughter at the clever dialogue. Finally, kudos to Sean Pomposello for designing a marvelous program cover. It captures everything -- Donna and Lottie's fragmented life, Kevin and Ted's love of scrapbooking, fun, obligation, nostalgia and hope.
Performances are Tuesday at 8pm, Wednesday at 2 and 8pm, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sunday at 3pm through September 15. Call (888) 927-752 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.