New York City Theater
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
It starts with a nose bleed, seemingly nothing unusual. But, we learn later, it’s more insidious than that. “The Children,” Lucy Kirkwood’s sad, frightening, moving, deceptively simple but apocalyptic play about three people caught in domestic and societal traps, takes place in what looks like an ordinary kitchen in a cottage near one of England’s shores.
But why is the set listing to one side? What happened to the electricity? Why is the projected roiling sea the color of blood? What is the disaster being talked about? What about the cows? What’s that rumbling?
Part mystery, part domestic triangle, “The Children,” for all its seeming drama about destruction, is shot through with sanity-saving humor. But its impact is anything but comforting, as these 60-ish characters talk about “consciously moving towards death.”
Living in the cottage, having been forced to move from their house because of an accident at the nearby atomic power plant, are the overtly cheerful, really quite anxious Hazel (“You have to resist”) and her husband, Robin, who tries, unsuccessfully, to keep his divided loyalties in check. Into their lives comes uninvited Rose, a long-lost, childless friend whom they thought was dead and who once probably had an affair with Robin. Slyly biding her time, the visitor has a mission (which shall not be revealed here).
More generally, her purpose has to do with self-sacrifice, with accepting one’s age, the inevitability of death and the individual’s responsibility in a world that undervalues collective action. (“We built it, didn’t we?” says Rose, referring to their part in the plant’s construction.)
These are people who, in one sense, get what they deserve. As scientists, they must shoulder the blame for the plant’s breakdown, even though the direct cause was an earthquake and tsunami (think Japan’s Fukushima). Take it as nature’s revenge on mankind’s hubris in misusing the world’s resources, a revenge that upends human as well as scientific rationality.
London’s Royal Court production (nearly two intermissionless hours), has been brought here by the Manhattan Theater Club with its director, James Macdonald, and award-winning cast intact. Macdonald skillfully steers his actors into subtlety, tamping down obvious emotions. Only glancingly revealing how the characters truly feel, for Macdonald this is a stiff upper-lip dance on the edge of an active volcano.
Francesca Annis plays Rose’s cards close to the body. Enigmatic, seemingly placid, she doesn’t tip the character’s hand. The way Annis smokes a cigarette, uses a Geiger counter, drinks water and home-made wine, washes salad greens – all are handled like rituals.
Deborah Findlay is adept at keeping Hazel’s marbles from rattling her mind. Constantly hustling and inquisitive, she doesn’t miss a beat in how she fixes dinner, answers intrusive questions about her children, practices her yoga or throws herself into a dippy dance to James Brown’s “Ain’t It Funky Now.”
As the good-hearted, randy Robin, Ron Cook fills his character with deep sensitivity, staving off decrepitude by trying to rekindle old flames. The fulcrum between Rose and Hazel, he keeps his balance by being useful and vigorous.
As essential as the actors and director, the design team does brilliant work: Miriam Buether’s set and costumes, Peter Mumford’s lights and projections, Max Pappenheim’s ominous sound.
“The Children” is the kind of play that stays with you, that eats into the protective layers of the brain, those layers that believe everything will turn out all right in the end. Its question is profound: How may we insure that the next generation, and the next and next will still enjoy nature’s bounties and have progressive lives?
In truth, “The Children” is not for everyone. The couple sitting next to me was restless and bored. But, then, they were young and probably optimistic.
--David A. Rosenberg
Jan. 4, 2018