We know immediately something is seriously off-kilter in Lucy Kirkwood’s excellent play, The Children, because Miriam Buether’s set is itself wonky. The frame of the stage looks knocked on its side, and when the lights come up there is Rose (Francesca Annis) nursing a bloody nose. We don’t see it at first, then we absolutely see it.
James Macdonald’s direction of this transferred production, from London’s Royal Court Theatre, may be confined to one set, but it is full of neat, jolting visual surprises, like that opening bloody nose.
The nose, the frisson of domesticated horror, is the meaningful gateway to Kirkwood’s 1 hour 50-minute, intermissionless drama, mounted by the Manhattan Theatre Club, which focuses on how Rose, and the couple she is visiting, Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook), will face an environmental catastrophe involving a nearby nuclear power station.
Here, in the kitchen of the cottage in the British countryside, right next to the audibly whooshing sea that Hazel and Robin have retreated to, away from their farm in the contaminated zone, decisions will be made on how they, retired nuclear engineers in their 60s, can best now serve themselves and those who are coming after them.
The Children is a title with a purpose, because although we never see them, Hazel and Robin’s children, particularly a daughter, are present ghosts; and Rose not having children but feeling a responsibility to the generations that come after her, is another ghost. What we owe ourselves, and what we owe those younger, the world we leave behind us, is the play’s thorniest question.
The play’s title also refers to the trio themselves. They behave like big kids themselves, for good and bad.
With Robin out somewhere in the fields tending to Hazel’s beloved cows (or is he?), it is Rose and Hazel, who Findlay plays with a sharp, nervy intensity, who are first reacquainted after many years of not seeing one another. Annis has an imperious, Mrs. Danvers-in-practical-outdoorwear foreboding about her. It grates on Hazel, who is much more down-to-earth and straightforward, immediately.
Rose has always given her the creeps, and we can see why. She seems icy, superior, and frankly as if she doesn’t mean Hazel well.
Far from whatever the nuclear catastrophe is outside, there is a domestic one brewing too. Robin and Rose have history, and Hazel knows that they do, and her sense of threat, her jealousy, and Hazel’s far-from-done feelings toward Robin fuel their exchanges. For the longest time, Hazel doesn’t know why Rose is there, if only to provoke discord in her marriage. But that bleeding nose stands for hurts that Rose has yet to reveal.
The audience delights in Kirkwood’s delight for language. Truly, close your eyes and listen to the lilting alliteration she executes, and the exchanges in The Children that rove from the domestic to the global, and even without seeing the stage in front of you you may well be listening to a delightful radio play.
Watch Hazel trying to establish if Rose wants to go for a “number one” or “number two” in the downstairs toilet. Faulty plumbing means the answer is vital. Rose lies, and there is an overflow—of everything.
Choices, and the gaps between generations, come into sharp contrast. Robin, who Cook evokes as a benign and wily bounder, and Hazel have tried to segue into a lefty, hippie-ish retirement of living off the land, of yoga and rural content, only for that to be blasted crudely out from under them. The inside of their kitchen looks as scarred as their marriage and dreams. The cottage isn’t rundown, but it has seen better days. But they are holding on. Rose's unexpected entry prompts the question: for what.
She encourages them to make the ultimate sacrifice for the good of their children. She asks them to confront that their lives be of more use if they sacrificed them. And yet amid this absolutely plausible pondering, the three of them snark at each other, joke and jest and flirt and hug and bitch. Rose is forced to smoke her cigarettes out by the front door, Rose and Robin flirt and kiss, and Hazel tells Rose exactly what she thinks of her. And finally, wonderfully, after all the sniping and joking, they dance to James Brown.
What is that dance, you think, watching the trio shake a tail feather. A dance of defiance, a dance against time, or just a dance that’s a dance, like they used to when they knew the routine off by heart and that they fumble toward mastering again on this night?
It’s something they can still get right, maybe, despite all their personal animosities, terrible illnesses survived, the disaster outside, and the unknown future that awaits them once they leave the cottage that feels like it will simply, and with a grateful, weary sigh, fall down when they leave.
That swirling unknown is bought startlingly to life at the end of the play, in one of the most visually stunning denouements on Broadway right now. And the true test of sitting and watching a play with no intermission for close to two hours is that you want to follow Hazel, Rose, and Robin to where they are going, to listen to them more. But Kirkwood has imagined the right end for them, right before a far more profound end presents itself.
The Children is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York City, until Feb. 4, 2018. Book tickets here.