Nancy Harris certainly knows how to put the parts together for a creepy-crawly experience. Our New Girl, her play at Atlantic II, could be regarded as Mary Poppins meets The Bad Seed meets Turn of the Screw with a glancing God of Carnage acquaintanceship. The problem flares when she doesn't quite suss out what to do with the elements once she's got them in place.
The first thing she shows you is young Daniel (10-year-old Henry Kelemen) in the dead of night moving about a good-looking London kitchen Timothy R. Mackabee has designed. Just when it looks as if the methodical lad is going to cut off his right ear Vincent Van Gogh-like with a hefty knife, the teaser scene ends.
Next thing you know, very pregnant Hazel (Mary McCann) is in the now day-lighted kitchen telling Annie (Lisa Joyce), who has a valise by her side, that no, she has no need for Annie's services as a nanny and, anyway, she had no idea one was arriving out of the blue. Annie explains it was Hazel's absent-in-Haiti dermatologist husband Richard (CJ Wilson) who arranged for a nanny's services.
The next thing you know, Annie, who hails from Ireland and Sligo, is at work despite Hazel's objections, and both women are seeing to affectless Daniel's various needs. That's when the play gets rolling in various directions, many of them scarifying but not all of them logical.
As you might imagine, the focus of concern is Daniel, who continually causes trouble at home and at school, where, for one, he's accused of ominously staring(!) at a new girl. Given the echoes of other sources mentioned above, it's not surprising that Annie begins to have greater hold over Daniel than either Hazel or the returning Richard, a robust type who calls his son "Big D" and initially registers as a calming influence.
And, of course, there's nubile nanny Annie in the same house with Richard and Hazel, who's not only preoccupied with the often skillfully mendacious Daniel and her pregnancy in its eighth month but also with a start-up, home-based olive-oil business that isn't working out.
As the friction between and among the play's four occupants -- and a pet of an odd type -- intensifies, several things go as audience members might guess they'll go and some go unexpectedly. Consequently, Harris keeps developments nerve-wracking and possibilities multiplying, though not always dealt with satisfyingly.
For one instance, throughout it looks as if Daniel is on the verge of pulling off some truly destructive event. Does he? For another instance, Harris hints that Nanny Annie couldn't entirely be the innocent she appears to be. Is she? Yet another instance, Hazel's pregnancy seems jeopardized under these conditions. Is it?
Another thing about the pregnancy: Certainly Harris considers it an issue. She's thinking seriously about what women undergo during pregnancy and using the drama's ingredients as a metaphor for the condition's discombobulating potential. Perhaps needless to say, she's also taking men and their reaction to a wife's pregnancy into account in her portrayal of what Richard allows himself to do in the charged situation.
By the fadeout sequence, however, what she's getting at isn't clear and even registers as unrealistic in terms of what's preceded it. In particular, at fade-out the relationship between Hazel and once-colicky-baby Daniel could be interpreted as unlikely.
Nevertheless, as the play, imported from London's Bush Theatre, unfolds, Gaye Taylor Upchurch directs it for all the chilling possibilities it holds out. The cast members -- despite their now-you-hear-them-now-you-don't accents -- are up to their character's challenges. McCann, Wilson and Joyce couldn't be better as they discharge their emotionally demanding duties. Young Kelemen does extremely well, even as you debate with yourself whether a child ought to be asked to embody this sort of disturbed figure.
By the way, Our New Girl is the second play from England in a week to deal with the hormonal gymnastics of a pregnant woman. The other is The Village Bike, at the Lucille Lortel, by Penelope Skinner and sent from another highly regarded play incubation center, the Royal Court.
It's a curious coincidence, no? It's not curious at all that both dramas are by women. Because I wouldn't want to have it thought of as a sexist remark, I hesitate to say that both represent depictions of hysteria, but I think it's completely safe to say that men wouldn't write pieces on the subject with the same psychological investment. So, more power to them.