Playwright: Nancy Harris. At: Profiles Theatre's The Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway. Tickets: 773-549-1815; www.profilestheatre.org; $35-$40. Runs through: June 28
Irish playwright Nancy Harris knows how to grasp an audience's attention in her 2012 play Our New Girl, now making a powerful Midwest debut courtesy of Profiles Theatre. Harris' modern-day drama opens with an unsettling sequence of an 8-year-old boy preparing to cut off his own ear.
The rest of Our New Girl flashes back to the fractured family dynamics to potentially explain why this moody boy, named Daniel ( in a calculated and creepy performance by Killian Hughes ), would even consider this shocking act of self-mutilation. In the process, Harris uncovers a lot of ambivalence and outright hostility by characters who are deeply unsatisfied at how their lives have don't measure up to societal templates of traditional, happy family lives.
Daniel's pregnant mother, Hazel ( a believably harried and constantly agitated Sarah Chalcroft ), is thrown for a loop when an Irish nanny named Annie ( an initially pleasant Miriam Canfield ) shows up unannounced in her posh London kitchen. It seems that Hazel's jet-setting humanitarian plastic-surgeon husband, Richard ( an appropriately full-of-himself Layne Manzer ), has hired Annie without any spousal consultation. But you can see why Richard thought he was helping as the self-admittedly hormonal Hazel is run off her feet by simultaneously starting a home business selling Sicilian olive oil and dealing with her willfully disobedient son.
Things don't get any better when Richard arrives home, with Annie becoming an added complication by alternating as both an ally and foe to the family's already heated factional battles. Just whose side you're supposed to take continually shifts, as Harris makes vigilantly sure to point out how her characters are all filled with very human flaws. Harris also gives her characters a chance to elaborate on their own personal unhappiness ( particularly Hazel, who gave up a high-powered career as an attorney to become a stay-at-home mother ).
Director Joe Jahraus and his fine quartet of actors keep the tension simmering throughout Our New Girl. So the boiling-over outbursts are expected, but still also very disturbing. My one quibble is that Jahraus and his cast don't capitalize on the ( very ) few moments in Harris' script that offer any sort of comic relief, so there is almost no escape from the play's relentless unease.
Now some might try to write off Our New Girl as just a domestic drama involving overly privileged people. But Harris incisively explores the different kinds of scarring that can occur when parental instincts stubbornly refuse to kick in and how difficult it is to be caught up in all that. If anything, Our New Girl should make anyone rethink the risks when it comes to starting a new family, no matter how poor or privileged you may be.