Another apocalyptic week in politics, another apocalyptic play on Broadway. “The Children” by Lucy Kirkwood and directed by James Macdonald opened this Tuesday at Friedman Theatre. Among the other dystopias, political rants, and apocalyptic pieces this season, “The Children” seems unremarkable, just another piece that makes the audience think of the potentially not-too-far-off doom awaiting us. But unlike some of the more dramatic, violent, or political shows to come to Broadway recently, this once seems a bit too sanguine and void of action. Three older British actors in a single-set room for two hours (no intermission) is not nearly as captivating as torture or death on stage that similar plays have been relying on to keep audiences interested.
The gimmick employed by this play to keep the audience on paying attention is the set, designed by Miriam Buether. The set is of a single room within a large rectangular box–but here’s the “fun” part–that is somewhat dramatically tilted. As if you couldn’t notice in the first scene an apple is placed on a table and it rolls right off. Something is off-kilter, although it’s not exactly what, or if this tilt is supposed to be literal or symbolic.
“The Children” tells the story of three retired nuclear engineers / physicists, married couple Hazel (Deobrah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook) and their former friend and coworker Rose (Francesca Annis). The three worked together at a nearby, waterside nuclear power plant which they helped construct. However, minutes into the play we learn that the plant has recently exploded, releasing toxic radiation and causing thousands to contract cancer. Hazel and Robin had to leave their home because it was too close to the radiation zone, but are otherwise happily enjoying retirement in their new cottage–that is until Rose shows up on their doorstep. Prior to the events of the play, the couple had not seen Rose in forty years, and we quickly learn that in addition to being coworkers, Rose and her were best friends and Robin was having an affair with her.
It is at this point that the nuclear apocalypse play turns into a senior citizen version of the classic mistress play. The action focuses on Robin and Rose sharing secret kisses between glasses of parsnip wine (don’t ask), and Rose asking about Hazel’s daughter–the symbol of Robin choosing Hazel over her. Here the odd title “The Children” gets repeated just a few too many times. But the point is driven home: nuclear power (and the apocalypse it has created) affects the children.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the play is the ethical debate that occurs towards the very end. In order to stop radiation from spreading, a crew of people need to go back to the plant, in the toxic zone, and fix the plant, even though they know it will kill them. Who should do this: young people with families who need the money, or the older generation who built the plant and caused this problem? Should Rose, Hazel, and Robin leave comfortable retirement to save the town from radiation, even if it means accepting a death sentence? Do they have less to live for than the young employees with small children who are currently forming the (literal) skeleton crew?
This debate is the saving grace of the play, since it provides a moral and ethical debate that is as fascinating as it is relevant. Who’s responsibility is it to fix a mistake? Who’s life is more worthwhile, the old or the young? Without the morality discussion, “The Children” is an odd mix of apocalypse and stage naturalism, a combination that certainly no one asked for. Perhaps this play fared better with more intellectual British audiences, but here on Broadway audiences often want something a bit more stimulating.