What do three retired nuclear engineers talk about when they get together after a nuclear meltdown has caused an earthquake and a tsunami on the coast of England and has left much of the countryside uninhabitable? In
gently probing and eccentrically unsettling play “The Children,” now receiving its first American performances in Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (the production and cast imported from London’s Royal Court Theatre), they talk about their eating habits, their aging bodies and their love lives—almost anything but the apocalyptic end-times around them.
Manhattan Theatre Club, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. $60-$140, 212-239-6200.
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And—oh yes—they talk about the children. But not much. One of their number, Rose, is childless. She has lived in the U.S. for years and suddenly appears inside the country cottage of a couple, Hazel and Robin, who were once her colleagues and friends (in the case of Robin, we soon suspect, more than friends). The couple has children, but they never appear and have long ago left home.
Sometimes it seems as if the children of the play’s title may be these 60-somethings who inhabit it—a finely wrought trio. Robin (
) enters carrying a tricycle he has found—and tests with a Geiger counter before riding it around the room. Like a child, too, he seems to live for the short term, insisting, for example, on daily visits to the now-radioactive dairy farm he and Hazel had once established. Mr. Cook portrays Robin as petulant, coy, confident, insistent. I wasn’t sure at times quite what his lure was to the women in his life, but there it was, a fact that demonstrated itself.
As for Hazel (
), she chatters on about the virtues of eating salad and doing yoga as if she could simply pretend away the obvious, ignoring the skewed shoebox that is her cottage, in which tap water cannot be drunk and electricity is intermittent (a set design by
perfectly suited to this chamber piece). But Ms. Findlay makes Hazel the most sympathetic character in the play, the one on whom you might rely when “hell or high water”—as Rose puts it—is literally imminent.
Rose, though, is the most peculiar.
portrays her as poised and stoic but mysterious, as cold but libidinous—the last a condition she limits by using birth-control pills. She is least like a child in her behavior, because her plotting lies behind the play’s unfolding. But there is something narcissistic about her. Is she, underneath it all, a priggish moralist using virtuous claims as a cloak for manipulation? Is she meant to satirize a pose or is she meant to display its superiority?
Ms. Kirkwood is one of Britain’s most acclaimed young playwrights (“Chimerica,” “Mosquitoes”) and this play is best when it skillfully keeps its questions hovering in the air, letting none settle to earth. Are these characters being childish by trying to carry on in the face of disaster? Death is plainly all around them. And illness, not all of it from radiation, is stalking them. Do they ignore it or, as Dylan Thomas urged, rage, rage against the dying of the light? These are not questions asked, but at least until the end, questions implied by the dialogue that crackles cleverly, alluding to unspoken sentiments. The direction by
creates a taut but playful psychological drama that lets nothing become pedantic, following the text’s lead and dissolving most solemnity with glints of wit.
At the same time, there was something unsatisfying here. Perhaps it was the sense that there really was meant to be, in the end, a takeaway: that these figures should be shouldering more responsibility for the catastrophe given that they all once worked on that nuclear power plant. And there is a suggestion that this also lies behind the play’s title, since one generation is supposedly bequeathing its mess to its children. This is too facile, too familiar and too unexamined. It is also undercut in ways I can’t specify here, but any such qualms are dispelled by recollections of the drama’s more humanly connected moments. At one point, Rose sets up her laptop to play an old favorite the three friends all once danced to in simpler times. And for a few moments, as the music plays, they recall from decades back the staged sequence of moves that Hazel had developed for them, imagining perhaps that life too was going to unfold in choreographed order.
—Mr. Rothstein is the Journal’s Critic at Large.