On the Shore of the Wide World
The playwright behind The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time brings his 2005 domestic drama to Atlantic Theater Company.
When you set sail for Simon Stephens's On the Shore of the Wide World, make sure to bring your own wind. The Olivier Award-winning play by the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Heisenberg is now making its New York debut at Atlantic Theater Company in an inert little production from director Neil Pepe.
Defenders of the play might argue that inertia is very much the point. It gives us an intimate look at three generations of the Holmes family; at least, it's as intimate as one could hope to get with such emotionally repressed people. Peter (C.J. Wilson) and Alice (Mary McCann) live in Stockport with their teenage sons, Alex (Ben Rosenfield) and Christopher (Wesley Zurick). Alex wants to move to London with his girlfriend, Sarah (Tedra Millan). He sees an opportunity in an extra room offered by his Londoner friend, Paul (Odiseas Georgiadis who convincingly embodies the delinquent mate in a one-scene appearance that easily makes this the most thankless role in the show).
Meanwhile, grandparents Charlie (Peter Maloney) and Ellen (Blair Brown) steadfastly maintain their mildly abusive relationship as Alice considers having an affair with a handsome stranger named John (Leroy McClain). For his part, Peter has several sexually charged one-on-one scenes with Susan (Amelia Workman), whose home he is helping to renovate.
Despite the temptations extended by the characters who are not Holmeses (3/4th of whom are black), this white family mostly stays on the straight and narrow (emphasis on the latter). They're more defined by the choices they don't make than the ones they do. A seemingly random offstage tragedy becomes the most significant event of the play. Other bad things happen after that, but since we're unable to forge enough of a connection with these frigid characters to ever really invest in their wellbeing, it is difficult to care.
Undeniably, great drama can spring from what at first appears like a quiet portrayal of everyday desperation. We saw a powerful example of that in Stephen Karam's The Humans, a long dinner scene during which timely politics and timeless anxieties emerged from the shadows of a spare Chinatown duplex. Of course, such a feat requires a director who is able to inject the stage with enough tension that an otherwise ordinary scene feels combustible. Pepe doesn't achieve that with his lethargic staging. Even the black-clad stagehands seem to saunter through the lengthy transitions.
Sound designer David Van Tieghem gives us something rhythmic and pulse-quickening to hear during those blackouts and Scott Pask's multi-level set offers the requisite playing space for Stephens's short, cinematic scenes. Our attention bounces from one end of the stage to the next thanks to Christopher Akerlind's focused lighting design. Not so eye-catching are Sarah Laux's costumes, which nevertheless capture the essence of bland dress for boring people.
The cast embodies those boring people with capable, competent performances across the board. Unfortunately, Stephens does them no favors by regularly having his characters speak the subtext, a surefire way to kill the little electricity the actors have labored to produce. "I want more than anything I've ever wanted to kiss your mouth," one character says to another, before profusely apologizing and making an awkward moment even more so. This may be a realistic portrayal of how the British socialize, but it makes for terrible stage drama.
It is tempting to excuse On the Shore of the Wide World as an early effort by a playwright whose best work was ahead of him in 2005 (the year this play premiered at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre). Certainly, it feels miles away from our concerns in 2017. So why mount it at all? With everything that is happening in the wide world, the events (or lack thereof) in this play make it feel awfully insignificant. In setting a course for universality, it lands in obscurity.