A man scoops water from an overflowing toilet into a bucket in Lucy Kirkwood's The Children, now making its Broadway debut with Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. It's a heavy-handed but effective visual metaphor for this quietly upsetting drama about doing too little too late. And while that moment seems to say it all, Kirkwood still writes plenty of awkward chitchat to fill 100 minutes of a play that oscillates between thought-provoking and boring.
It takes place in the English seaside cottage occupied by Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook), two retired nuclear engineers living in the shadow of the reactor they helped design and operate several decades ago. A recent seismic event has led to a situation similar to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011, with radiation spilling into the surrounding area following a devastating tidal wave. It is in this moment that Rose (Francesca Annis) has come back into their lives. Rose worked with Hazel and Robin on the reactor, but they haven't seen her in 38 years. Old wounds are reopened and buried hatchets are exhumed as they kill an evening and several bottles of wine.
Kirkwood has a lot to say about the little jealousies and regrets that govern our behavior. She also smartly probes certain assumptions around life in the West that aren't as certain as we'd like to believe. "A hundred years ago you’d probably be in the ground by now," Robin tells his 67-year-old yoga enthusiast wife. It's an uncomfortable statement (especially in a Broadway subscriber theater), but the logic behind it is sound: Modern technology has extended lifespans beyond anything previously imagined. We wonder if this is really sustainable.
The 33-year-old Kirkwood notes in the script that this play is not meant to address a single generation, but it is difficult to emerge from the show not thinking about the baby boomers, whose visionary zeal has led the world into our present age of anxiety. "We built a nuclear reactor next to the sea, then put the emergency generators in the basement," says Rose, drawing a direct line between their hubris and inevitable tragedy, a cause and effect these erudite Brits ought to have anticipated. Hazel darkly references the mostly lost port of Dunwich, telegraphing her understanding that hers isn't the first generation to tempt fate.
The show features the same cast that premiered the play at London's Royal Court Theatre last year: Cook delivers Robin's gallows humor with gentle laceration. Even his cruelty comes sheathed in lighthearted courtesy. As Rose, Annis has the spectral confidence of someone who knows her days are numbered, yet she still maintains a certain sexy allure, which must be all the more maddening to the resentful Hazel. Findlay gives the lady of the house the clearest and most extreme journey of the three: She seems to age in reverse as the play progresses.
Director James Macdonald places these unsettlingly real performances in a handsome production that sadly fails to grab hold of our full attention until about halfway through. Miriam Buether surrounds her overwhelmingly beige set with a picture-frame proscenium. Exposed wires and crowded outlets betray the centrality of electricity in this rustic cottage. Yet no power is being delivered, which means our characters must rely on Peter Mumford's incandescent dusk to light their itchy reunion. Buether's costumes seem drawn from some stalwart Lands' End catalogue that still gets delivered in the event of a nuclear meltdown. Contrary to the playwright's instruction, these mom jeans and comfortable synthetic fibers point directly to the baby boom generation (as does Carole Hancock's exceptionally convincing wig design). Sound designer Max Pappenheim brings the not-too-distant sound of crashing waves into the theater. Beautifully rendered, none of it adds up to the sustained tension that this play demands.
Provided they pay attention, audience members might bring that on their own. Any play that deals with generational legacy is bound to ruffle some feathers. The Children thrillingly pokes holes in the notions that have become articles of faith in our society. Chief among them is the idea that our children and grandchildren will have a higher standard of living than we ourselves enjoy.