Last summer, Mark Lamos directed a production of Harbor, a new play by Chad Beguelin, at the Westport Country Playhouse, where Mr. Lamos presides as artistic director. It did well there, had some excellent quotes from the press, featured four good actors including the rising Bobby Steggert and Paul Anthony Stewart. Now here we are a year later and Primary Stages has moved it to the very commodious 59East59 complex on Manhattan’s east side, where it is scheduled to run through September 8th — unless it extends, or is moved once again.
It’s a fascinating play by a writer known primarily as a lyricist, in which field he’s been honored by any number of awards including the Edward Kleban Award for outstanding lyric writing. So it’s somewhat astonishing that he should have been able to come up with Harbor, which is a complex and intriguing full length play dealing with the cracks in the married relationship between two gay men, who have been living harmoniously for ten years when suddenly the sister of the younger partner descends on the hyphenated couple, parking herself on their very smart Sag Harbor doorstep with her 15 year old daughter. She’s manipulative, she plans to stay until she can get her brother and his husband to adopt and raise the infant she is carrying. She is catalyst enough to cause an explosion that changes the course of all of their lives.
Some of the material is sitcom funny, and it earns its many laughs. But Beguelin is not afraid to move into darker territory in the second act and there is genuinely fine writing in scenes between the two men which lead to a surprising, moving and uncompromising conclusion that elevates the play to much more than a topical family comedy. Mr. Lamos’ production is uneven however, and does not always fully serve the material.
The set designed by Andrew Jackness is all wrong — for the older of the two men is an architect, a man of taste and distinction. But his home, or at least the living room that we see of it, is more like an old West Side apartment in Manhattan, furnished in what looks like good pieces from the 1930s that were handed down by someone’s Grandmother. It is furnished mostly in mahogany, with a ladylike desk, a large buffet topped by a silver tea service and two astringent table lamps that no young gay man in his right mind would live with. There are two large stuffed chairs placed in the center of the space.
The room is further lit by a crystal chandelier and several wall sconces, also of crystal. There is nothing in the room to suggest that these two men live there. The younger partner is a would-be writer, still sweating out his first novel after ten years, and his work space is the delicate little desk that barely supports a laptop. Nothing in the room suggests Sag Harbor, which is a seaport, a fishing village, the home of many an artist, writer, actor, creator of one sort or another. This looks like your spinster Aunt Martha’s place on West 84th Street, just off West End Avenue, New York.
In Westport, the rising star Bobby Steggert played Kevin, the younger partner in the marriage. He’s been replaced by Randy Harrison, best known as the ‘perfect twink Justin’ in the Showtime series “Queer As Folk”. Harrison is still a prettyboy, and he’s capable enough onstage, but Steggert brought a raffish kind of charm to the role that’s lacking here.
Paul Anthony Stewart repeats his performance as Ted, the older architect, and he’s absolutely fine. Firm in his convictions, happy in the nature of his relationship with Kevin, his world comes crashing down when sister-in-law Donna turns a one-night visit into an extended stay. She is played by Erin Cummings, making her New York debut in the role, but her extensive background in regional theatre and television has prepped her for the job, and she is quite stunning. Donna has to be one of the most despicable characters to hit the stage since Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes. Donna knows what she wants, knows why she’s in contact with brother Kevin for the first time in years. She doesn’t get what she wants, but she ends up with something she hadn’t counted on, and the conclusion of the play is almost the best thing about it.
Mr. Beguelin’s achievement is remarkable, particularly as a stretch from the libretto/lyric writing he’s been doing for years. He is a playwright and he’s plotted his play so it keeps us interested till the end, unable to predict just where that ending would take us. Now and then the play slips into the glibness of situation comedy, there are some plot devices that are very close to contrivance. Ted’s ability to find the phone number of the father that Donna’s daughter Lottie has never met – a numbers she’s been seeking for ten years – is just a bit convenient. The phone call she finally makes is straight out of Stella Dallas, but Alexis Molnar, who created the role in Westport, plays it well, showing us she is capable of more than unbridled screeching which has been her modus vivandi through most of the first act.
It all turns out to be a series of character sketches, it examines the complexities of role playing in romantic and family relationships, and it causes thought and after-theatre conversation, all of which is good. Once they get the furniture and the setting right (I suggest Mr. Jackness spend some time in Sag Harbor visiting a number of living rooms), once they get back into rehearsal to add some nuance to Ms. Molnar’s “Lottie”, one can hope for a future for this very fine piece of play writing.
Harbor is onstage through Sept 8, 2013 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, NYC. Details and tickets.
Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
- Richard Seff interviews Broadway luminaries:
- Carole Shelley
- Brian d’Arcy James
- Chita Rivera
- John Kander, With Complete Kander
Richard Seff chats with Joel Markowitz:
- Richard Seff: A Lifetime on Broadway
- Inside Broadway: A Return Visit with Richard Seff
- (2009) Season Highs and Lows Predicting the 2010 Tony Awards