Because I instinctively applaud when a playwright tackles the pressing issues that increasingly seem to engulf us these days, I feel guilty about declaring my lack of enthusiasm for Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children, a production from London’s Royal Court Theatre now on view at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway house, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The Children tries to compress several genres into a small-scale kitchen-sink drama, the length of its single act slightly distended to accommodate enough material that it runs a full hundred minutes.
In that time we get a dystopian near-future drama meant to scare us into thinking about present-day issues, plus an unromantically treated romantic triangle dripping with recriminations over affairs long past, plus a sort of metaphysical-expressionist drama in which the ominous sound of wind and waves, suggesting a malign Destiny, gathers force and ultimately takes over. None of these threads, if carried out imaginatively enough, would play effectively; handled with a little more daring or panache, the act of combining them might provide creative excitement. But Kirkwood’s play, written in a flat naturalistic style, doesn’t bring its materials to life, and James Macdonald’s production, well played but slackly paced, follows the script glumly, though the visionary projections that close the event have an attractive fascination that makes for a strong finish.
The scene is a remote seaside cottage in England, not far from a nuclear power plant that has been the site of a Fukushima-like disaster. Married couple Sally (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook) are retired nuclear engineers who used to live on a farm in what is now the “exclusion zone” surrounding the plant; the cottage, owned by a relative, has been their refuge since the apparently recent disaster. To them, unexpectedly, comes Rose (Francesca Annis), a colleague at the plant decades ago, who has been in America for thirty-odd years. To discuss the issues that underlie the script’s dystopian layer would entail giving away the plot point on which The Children’s meager helping of suspense depends. Suffice it to say that the title, which ostensibly refers to Robin and Sally’s now-grownup offspring, also holds a larger reference to future generations: The plant and its consequences leave a legacy that Rose is trying to confront.
The sexual entanglements that lie behind the couple’s relationship to their unexpected guest, which also can’t be revealed without spoiling some of the lesser plot surprises, are at least interestingly complicated — not a predictable triangular confrontation of the type that the film critic James Agee used to call “Iscariot marathons.” This chunk of narrative doesn’t convince because, aside from the characters’ overall drabness, their love affairs and preferences have no meaningful connection to their dealings with the plant. Gee, nuclear engineers sometimes sleep around; emotional involvements, adulteries, and unwanted pregnancies sometimes occur among them, as with people in any other walk of life. But this striking piece of not-news tells us nothing about why it is that a nuclear power plant should have been built near the seashore in an area prone to earthquakes and tidal waves. Nor does it say much about the human heart’s tendency to go astray, unless you’ve mistakenly thought of nuclear engineers as lacking that key bit of anatomy.
Kirkwood’s concerns — including the concern for individual lives that went into her crafting of the three characters — are urgently real, and hence creditable. She sounds a doomsday note, but not without hinting that we human beings don’t surrender easily to doomsdays of any sort. I wish I could say that she had found a thoroughly gripping theatrical way to express her concerns. Regrettably, the most provocative thought The Children has left me with is the gnawing concern that plays of its kind will not do anymore, that the mounting crises of our world can no longer fit inside a box set, however oddly canted or dressed up with effects. This of course is only a critic’s fear, not a theory or an aesthetic premise; no doubt the next great play that comes along in conventional form will defuse my concern. Meanwhile, the theater has other ways of stimulating our minds, and if it can’t find a way to confront the crises we face, we can always do what I do every morning anyway: read the news and weep for the future of our species.