The working-class English clan at the center of Simon Stephens’s On the Shore of the Wide World is buckling under multiple stresses. Alcoholic granddad Charlie (Peter Maloney) batters his wife, Ellen (Blair Brown). Alice (Mary McCann) has grown bitterly restless in her marriage to recessive, taciturn Peter (C.J. Wilson). Their son Alex (Ben Rosenfield) itches to break away from provincial Stockport (outside Manchester). I haven’t even mentioned the girlfriends, extramarital temptations, and Alex’s doomed younger brother, Christopher (Wesley Zurick). There’s enough transgenerational angst to fuel a season of Coronation Street. Indeed, Stephens structures his tale in a way that brings soap operas inevitably to mind: a series of short, intimate scenes quivering with suppressed emotions and the occasional eruption. All that’s missing is organ chords for transitions.
Of course, Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) is too skilled for the writing quality to dip quite so low as ITV. At the same time, what breadth his panoramic tactic achieves — we see how the men pass down inarticulate resentment like an heirloom — is nullified by a nagging lack of depth. We don’t settle on any character long enough to gain deeper understanding or empathy; their unhappiness simply gets a fresh iteration. And monotony sets in once you realize that Stephens is determined to advance his domestic epic mostly with one-on-one fragments. The two-person scene is the fundamental building block of drama, but too many of them can feel like a lazy default position, an economical but technically dull way to braid narrative strands.
The finest scenes are between Wilson’s Peter and Amelia Workman as a married publishing executive who hires him to repaint her house. She grows increasingly pregnant over the course of the job, and becomes drawn bemusedly to this terse but clearly sensitive, troubled man. There’s unforced romantic chemistry and warm waves of sympathy when they share the stage. In a parallel subplot, Alice befriends a man whose life intersects tragically with that of her younger son. The latter flirtation is more contrived, and left frustratingly unresolved.
Neil Pepe’s production flows assuredly on Scott Pask’s homey, two-level set, but a more minimal environment might have allowed a theatrical swiftness to offset the episodic choppiness of the script. While the cast is full of seasoned performers, none except Wilson fully slips into a persuasive Northern groove. Maloney is an adorable, moonfaced duffer, but too sweet to exude menace as a sozzled abuser. An English cast, I have to say, would know these folks on a sociological level; making matters worse, the accents are patchy, at times sounding bizarrely Texan.
Maybe it’s petty to pick on the dialect work, but unless your ensemble is brilliant at lower-middle-class Mancunian, why do it at all? Of recent English plays I’d love to see produced here, a twelve-year-old piece by Simon Stephens with a lukewarm reputation is at the bottom of the list. Let’s have Conor McPherson’s Victorian ghost story The Veil, Lucy Kirkwood’s U.S./China media critique Chimerica, or Dennis Kelly’s cynical morality tale The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas. There’s no shortage of British product to stream or DVR on Thirteen. If a theater wants to bridge distant shores, culturally speaking, it ought to be with a bang.
On the Shore of the Wide World
Atlantic Theater Company
336 West 20th Street
Through October 8