The plot of "Harper Regan" follows a sad suburban woman through multiple encounters as she abandons her job, her husband and her daughter to visit her dying father.
But beneath this glum little journey -- less an enlightening odyssey, really, than a meander -- churns an unsettling undercurrent about physical relationships we sanitize with the term "age-inappropriate."
Simon Stephens, the Olivier-winning British playwright introduced here by the Atlantic Theater in 2011 with "Bluebird," doesn't turn this into anything as obvious as an issue play.
But there is an issue about Harper's husband (the sympathetic Gareth Saxe) whose architecture career has been ruined by some photos he took of young girls. The husband's crisis is the only one spelled out. But casual references to attractions for much younger people linger, with a messy, insidious power beyond the play's tidier mechanics.
The production, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, neatly changes locations by flipping down one of the set's dark panels for Harper's series of brief meetings with unlikely strangers who seem more like characters than people.
Harper (played with hard-to-read diffidence by Mary McCann) stands in impotent bafflement as her boss denies her time off to see her father while babbling about the charms of her 14-year-old daughter. That daughter, embodied with sardonic intelligence by Madeleine Martin (the terrific daughter in "Californication") is one of the few believable characters among Harper's duets with people who talk in long, bogus streams of consciousness.
Mary Beth Peil (the wondrously chilling mother-in-law in "The Good Wife") is another one, pithily portraying Harper's estranged mother, first married when she was 14 and now smooching a husband barely older than Harper.
Harper has an almost-
enchanting encounter with a young man (Stephen Tyrone Williams) her daughter's age, and an almost-seductive meeting in a bar with a young tough -- supposedly a journalist? -- which ends in an unbelievable act of violence without repercussion. There is a moving scene with a married businessman (Christopher Innvar) Harper picks up on the Web. But there's something wrong when we care more about him than about her or her journey.
WHAT "Harper Regan"
WHERE Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th St.
BOTTOM LINE Unsettling emotions, glum journey