WHAT ‘The Children’
WHERE Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.,
INFO $60-$140, 212-239-6200, telecharge.com
BOTTOM LINE Thought-provoking play questions our obligations to future generations.
It is an agonizing question that haunts every parent: What kind of world are we leaving to our children? Or perhaps more to the point, to everyone’s children.
In Lucy Kirkwood’s thought-provoking “The Children,” now at Manhattan Theatre Club with a cast and director imported intact from last year’s sold-out run at the Royal Court in London, questions about our responsibilities to future generations weigh heavily and are not easily answered.
The play gets going slowly, in part because the deep English accents are initially hard to understand. Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook), retired nuclear engineers married 40 years, have retreated to a borrowed seaside cottage after some sort of disaster. We find out in agonizingly slow revelations that an earthquake and tsunami have caused a meltdown at the nearby nuclear power plant where they once worked (eerie shades of Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011).
A visit from Rose (Francesca Annis), a former colleague they haven’t seen for 38 years, presents them with an impossible decision, one that brings into focus the future of their four children along with far broader and longer-lasting considerations.
All three actors are in top form, portraying well-developed, multidimensional characters (as well they should, having inhabited them for more than a year) under James Macdonald’s meticulous direction. Beyond the environmental crisis, of course, they capture the more human side of the drama, as the characters struggle with the frustrating realities of their situation — intermittent power outages, undrinkable water, limited food supply, all played out on Miriam Buether’s gently tilting set — a not so subtle suggestion that the world’s gone askew. “I don’t know how to want less,” Hazel says at one point.
To complicate matters, there’s a love triangle to contend with. Robin and Rose have been involved — before and more than likely after his marriage. Hazel appears to be fully aware, but that doesn’t prevent her own tour de force of a meltdown when Rose improperly uses the finicky downstairs toilet. In any case, kudos to Kirkwood for letting us see three people in their mid-60s as fully sexual beings, not yet done with seeking romance in their lives.
Ultimately, this is a difficult piece of theater, and the ambiguous though beautiful ending (with evocative lighting by Peter Mumford) presents so many implications it makes the head spin. Whatever the conclusion, anyone who sees the play will find it hard to stop thinking about the universal and troubling issues it raises.