Ron Cook, Francesca Annis, and Deborah Findlay in ‘The Children.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)
By Samuel L. Leiter
A toxic atmosphere pervades the stage in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s uneven but superbly acted The Children; however, none of its three characters actually wears the hazmat suits seen on the Playbill cover—not that it would be such a bad idea.
Director James Macdonald’s sometimes gripping, sometimes dull production comes to us with its original cast following a hit production at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Combining a modicum of tension, mystery, and a refreshing spray of laughter, it concerns the radioactive aftermath of a Fukushima-like earthquake and tsunami.
The location is somewhere on the English seacoast where a nuclear power plant was foolishly built and whose surrounding region is a contaminated “exclusion zone.” The place is so vulnerable that its crumbling coastline once caused an entire medieval village to fall into the sea.
Living near that fragile coastline are two retired nuclear physicists in their late-60s, Robin (Ron Cook), joking in the face of doom, and his health-conscious, yoga-practicing wife, Hazel (Deborah Findlay). They reside in a shabby, old cottage provided by a distant relative, where they make do with electricity available only at scheduled intervals, undrinkable tap water, and wine Robin concocts from things like parsnip. Power is promised sometime in the near future.
The cottage, standing on eroding land, is slightly askew; Kirkwood’s script suggests that the naked eye might not notice this but Miriam Buether’s otherwise effective set (she also did the costumes) makes it distinctly apparent. Peter Mumford’s lighting and Max Pappenheim’s sounds create a just-right somberness for this tilted rustic enclave.
Robin and Hazel’s no longer livable former home is not far from the power plant at which they both once worked. Some miles away is their organic dairy farm, where, despite the danger, Robin goes daily to look after their cows, which Hazel loves but whose milk must be destroyed. Hazel and Robin also have four grown children. Their first was Lauren, whose troubled offstage life is a cross Hazel bears during what transpires.
The first person we see, however, is Rose (Francesca Annis), another nuclear scientist, standing in the kitchen with blood streaming out of her nose and onto her blouse. Rose, who’s been living in Massachusetts for 38 years, is the unmarried, childless, onetime friend and colleague of Hazel and Robin. She was also the latter’s lover until they broke up when Hazel became pregnant with Lauren. Rose’s nose is bleeding because, having shown up unannounced, she was struck by the frightened Hazel, who had thought Rose dead.
For other reasons, blood will flow again as the three old friends revisit their boomer pasts and contemplate their questionable futures. For other reasons, blood will flow again as the three old friends revisit their boomer pasts and contemplate their questionable futures. In a well-done but irrelevant scene, they even reconstruct a line dance to James Brown’s “Ain’t It Funky Now” that Hazel created years ago.
Prime subjects of the naturalistic dialogue concern careless decisions regarding nuclear plant locations, health, illness, mortality, and the inevitability of aging. Hazel considers retirement not “the end of our lives but a new and exciting chapter”: “If you’re not going to grow, don’t live,” she says. For his part, Robin declares, “Our age, you have to show no fear to Death.” These thoughts are tested when, well into the play, Rose finally reveals the reason she’s so unexpectedly turned up in Robin and Hazel’s lives.
For all its dramatic circumstances, The Children is not nearly as intense as its outline suggests. Talky, expository passages, where little transpires, combine with a thinning plotline to introduce occasional longueurs during its intermissionless hour and 50 minutes. Thanks to the lovingly honed performances, though, you remain invested for most of it.
Cook captures the sprightly, quick-on-the-uptake Robin, his amorous feelings for Rose unabated. Findlay’s Hazel is a witty woman whose resentment of Rose emerges from under a cover of politeness; questionable as the moment is, Findlay is terrific when she’s required to question Rose on whether she’s just used the loo for a number one or a number two. And Annis nails the smoking, drinking, imperious scientist who’s on a sacrificial mission to convince others of how best to shoulder responsibility for the disaster.
Flaws aside, much of The Children is thoughtful and intelligent. Just don’t bring the children.
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th St., NYC
Through February 4
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).