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Theatre in Review: The Children (Manhattan Theatre Club/Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)

Ron Cook, Francesca Annis. Photo: Joan Marcus

In her new play, Lucy Kirkwood has imagined an honestly nightmarish situation: a Fukushima Daichi-style disaster on the east coast of England, spilling God only knows how many gallons of irradiated water into the sea and making a considerable area of land uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. It's a premise calculated to chill one to the bone, if only because it seems all too possible. (If you're old enough to remember the crisis at Three Mile Island, the thought is never too far from one's mind.) Having been gutsy enough to force an audience to confront such a scenario, however, the playwright compromises herself with some remarkably creaky, old-fashioned plotting. A play designed to disturb ends up producing an oddly lulling effect.

Kirkwood deliberately unsettles us with the play's opening image: Rose, a woman in her sixties, standing in a country kitchen with blood running down her face and onto her shirt. It is the result of an accident: Having decided to drop in on her old friends Hazel and Robin, she walked up behind Hazel, who was so startled she gave Rose a good thwack. Not that Hazel is especially jumpy, but, she says, "We heard you'd died."

In fact, Hazel, Robin, and Rose haven't been together for nearly four decades; all three were nuclear engineers at the nearby plant, which is melting down, befouling the countryside and surrounding ocean. (Engineers are on-site, working slowly to get the place shut down.) Following the accident, Hazel and Robin, who are retired, fled their home, an organic dairy farm -- which was destroyed by radioactive flood waters -- and have settled into temporary digs in a relative's cottage. Their drinking water is bottled, they test their produce with Geiger counters, and they get electricity for a couple of hours maximum each day. "It was a one-in-ten-million-years fault sequence. But this part of the country, we're basically in the same boat as Bangladesh," notes Hazel. And we haven't even gotten to the town that fell into the ocean: "The cliff just crumbled off like a lump of wet cake. The houses, the school, the church, the marketplace. Just tumbled into the water."

Despite the horrors unfolding around her, Hazel clings to a kind of life-begins-at-sixty philosophy, eating her vegetables and practicing yoga. Her mantra is "If you're not going to grow, don't live." Rose, a cancer survivor, keeps her own counsel, but Francesca Annis, who plays her, is an expert at pregnant silences: Staring out the open doorway like an indoor cat surveying the far horizon, she silently conveys her contempt for Hazel's self-improvement schemes. Robin, more fatalistic than his wife, is said to visit their farm daily in order to milk the cows they left behind, even though the farm is inside the "exclusion zone," with dangerous levels of radiation. Kirkwood never makes one believe that Robin would put himself in harm's way for such a futile task -- for safety's sake, he must throw the milk away, Hazel says -- but, in any case, this is a ruse, and when we learn what Robin is really doing, it is even less convincing.

The unacknowledged thread of tension between the women becomes clearer when we learn that Robin and Rose -- who has been living in the US for decades -- have been carrying on whenever they get the chance. (Admittedly, not often; they have been out of touch for five years.) Hazel senses that something is up, although she doesn't know the details. All of this comes out during an exceptionally long and languorous stretch of exposition -- everybody circling everyone else, making veiled remarks and failing to take the bait. Finally, the penny drops: Without going into details, Rose has concocted a plan to restore control at the plant and, having obtained official approval, she requires assistance from Robin and Hazel that will amount to tremendous personal sacrifice. The kicker: They have one hour to decide whether to accede to Rose's request.

Instantly, a play that seemed surprisingly aimless flips into the contrived melodrama of another theatrical era. We learn that Rose has spent weeks assembling a team of experts for her project. But why would she wait until the eleventh hour to involve the two people to whom she has an emotional connection? Rose, as it happens, is full of summary judgments that she is only too happy to share. When Hazel complains about their current living circumstances, Rose primly reminds her, "You don't have a right to electricity," adding, "Half the developing world exists without it." Explaining to Robin that she isn't there as a homewrecker, she says, "I do understand now, that for the world not to, you know, completely fall apart, that we can't have everything we want just because we want it." Underlying her attempt at recruiting Robin and Hazel is the notion that, having arrived at their seventh decade, they have lived long enough, and they may as well get off the planet before they add any more to its misery. This argument, I submit, is unlikely to be catnip to many members of the audience, especially Manhattan Theatre Club's subscriber base.

Hazel, who isn't at all pleased by any of these developments, argues that she and Robin have a duty to be available to support their daughter who, pushing forty, is damaged in some unspecified way, making her dependent on them. Extending Rose's Malthusian logic, Robin argues that it is high time they let the poor young woman go, to sink or swim as she will. (It was around this time that I began to wonder why Manhattan Theatre Club chose to program this glum and implausible drama for the holiday attraction at its Broadway venue. Counterprogramming, I guess, for the pessimists among us.) The evening includes such hackneyed touches as a scene in which all three characters reenact the dance they once performed -- to James Brown's "Ain't It Funky Now" -- at a long-ago party. Near the end, two characters take part in yoga exercises -- a faintly appalling prospect, since the kitchen floor has been swamped with water spilling from a flooded toilet.

Even if the director, James Macdonald, is content to let the action take its own sweet time, he has three fine actors at his disposal. Annis, more mannered than the others, is a cloud of insinuation and regret drifting in from the local moors and stirring up emotional squalls. Her salt-and-pepper coif whirling about her face in Medusa fashion, she speaks in an often eerily melodious voice, her eyes fixed on the middle distance. Whether you see her as the voice of morality or an insufferable prig, she makes an impression. Deborah Findlay's Hazel is cannily conceived as Rose's spiritual opposite -- hard, practical, and determined to defend her home at all costs. Ron Cook adds plenty of intentionally discordant notes as Robin, whose every remark contains a little pinprick of provocation; he and Annis don't evidence much chemistry, however, making it hard to believe that they've been sneaking around since James Callaghan was prime minister.

Miriam Buether's cottage interior is, down to the last detail, revelatory of Robin and Hazel's ad hoc post-disaster living situation. I'm not sure that anything is gained by raking the deck from stage right to stage left -- at times, it feels like an affectation -- but, anyway, it certainly sends the message that the world is out of joint. Peter Mumford's precise, delicate lighting follows a late-afternoon-into-evening procession; his rendering of the candlelit interior is particularly attractive. Max Pappenheim's sound design includes the sound of the ocean (accompanied by projections of water), approaching cars, and "Ain't It Funky Now."

The Children is a rather depressing affair, not least because its intentions are so good; however, it leaves one with a sense of the difficulty of dramatizing the issues with which Kirkwood is concerned. (It's a shame that New York has not seen her play Chimerica, a fascinating exploration of the repercussions of the Tiananmen Square massacre.) The existential threats posed by nuclear power -- and its relationship to the even greater problem of climate change -- are, arguably, among the most urgent issues of the day. But, based on the evidence here, they can't be contained in a stolid drama about old friends, adultery, and wayward children. -- David Barbour

(20 December 2017)

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