Of all New York's teeming theatre festivals, it's tempting to be a little hard on the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The shows are certainly fancier than what we expect from typical festival fare. . .yet with all of its shoot-for-the-moon production values and occasional stunt-casting, it's still a new works festival, with shows that demonstrate tons of promise but are still finding their footing artistically. Australian import The Hatpin is one such show, giving us a creepy and compelling premise that is stylishly executed, but only occasionally brought to its horrifying potential.
Based on a true crime story from the last turn of the century, The Hatpin tells the story of Amber Murray, an unwed and unemployed mother who must put her infant son into temporary care while she finds work and can save enough to reclaim him. Through a classified newspaper ad (there was no foster care system at the time), she finds the wealthy and accommodating Makin family, and hands him over for what she believes will be a few short months. When the family becomes permanently evasive and will never let her visit, it becomes clear that they have another agenda.
The play sets a mesmerizing and chilly mood right from the beginning and doesn't let go, owing entirely to Peter Rutherford's beautiful score. Sung by some truly gorgeous voices and performed by a small chamber trio of piano, cello, and reeds, it beautifully evokes the period without falling prey to the trendy pop trappings of many new shows. There are some decent melodic hooks buried there as well, though they fly by too quickly to stick (Rutherford seems to dislike repetition). The material is clearly challenging, and several of the actors really go to town with it, particularly Caroline O'Connor as Amber's plucky, kind-hearted employer, and Gemma-Ashley Kaplan, who delivers a tour-de-force performance as the Makins' troubled daughter Clara.
While The Hatpin wins in sound and style, it has yet to achieve some necessary focus. The play—which is at its core a Victorian nail-biter – minimizes the suspense factor in an effort to build sympathy for Amber, only later giving way to the Hitchcockian plot twists that drive it forward. This ultimately works to the play's disservice, making the dramatic left-turns of the second act seem comparatively over the top. The play could also benefit from some specificity. Author/lyricist James Millar expresses in his program notes that the setting of this play is in "every city," and while his effort to make the story universal is admirable, the lack of a distinctive time and place (a problem exacerbated by the actors' inconsistent accents) achieves the opposite effect. Kim Hardwick's direction doesn't do much to conceal these problems, with somewhat generic staging and a seeming indifference to detail in many of the design elements. To her credit, she keeps a steady flow of action between the scenes and keeps us connected to the story throughout this lengthy piece.
The Hatpin had a successful debut earlier this year in its native Sydney, and it deserves an American audience as well. Hopefully its tenure in this year's NYMF festival has helped it move further toward fulfilling its remarkable potential.