Friday, September 15, 2017

67 (2017-2018): Review: ON THE SHORE OF THE WIDE WORLD (seen September 14, 2017)

“When Life’s Not a Beach”

With a few exceptions, notably the Times, Simon Stephens’s On the Shore of the Wide World, which opened Tuesday at the Atlantic, hasn’t received the warm response here it did when it premiered in England, where it won the 2006 Olivier Award for Best New Play. While I don’t consider it as weak as suggested by its many failing and slightly higher grades on, it’s still far from what one might have expected from the man whose later plays include The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Punk Rock, and Heisenberg.
Wesley Zurick, Peter Maloney. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
A sudsy, sprawling tale of the constrained lives of three generations of the Holmeses, a dysfunctional working-class family in Stockton, near Manchester,  it covers themes of love, sex, marriage, illness, and death, not to mention abortion, child-raising, fidelity, the evils of tobacco and booze, spousal abuse, and a few others; fortunately, it leaves out taxes. The title is from a line in John Keats’s 1818 sonnet, “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be,” quoted late in the play, in which the tubercular writer lamented his imminent death and the ending of all he had to contribute. Its pertinence here is open to various interpretations. 
Stephens’s screenplay-like script, competently staged by Neil Pepe, is written in 42 scenes, some quite brief, and not a few ending abruptly just as you’re beginning to invest in them. It also requires an overlong two and a half hours (it was originally three hours and 20 minutes) to conclude. As others have noted, it’s hard not to regard the play as a truncated TV miniseries.

Although the characters, for all their struggles with suppressed feelings, aren’t especially interesting or unusual, the talented company does its best to maintain a modicum of interest for at least the first act, when we’re getting to know them and their relationships. Act Two, though, goes off in uninspired directions, abandoning whatever good was built up earlier.
Tedra Milan, Ben Rosenfield. Photo: Ahron R.. Foster.
The youngest family members are teenage brothers, 18-year-old Alex (Ben Rosenfield) and 15-year-old Christopher (Wesley Zurick), the latter smitten by Alex’s girlfriend, Sarah Black (Tedra Millan), when she stays over one night in Alex’s room. All are well-played, but Millan, with her nasal drawl, stands out because of her amusing depiction of the girl’s eccentricities.

The stalwart, emotionally confounded Peter (C.J. Wilson), who restores old homes, and his depressed wife, Alice (Mary McCann), are the boys’ parents, both given sensitive, heartfelt performances. Their abiding love is challenged by the strains of a 20-year-marriage. Finally, we have the grandparents, with the role of Charley Holmes giving Peter Maloney a chance to provide another in his trademark gallery of blustery, crabby geriatrics. As Ellen, his long-suffering wife, who riles Alice up by meddling in her marital affairs, Blair Brown makes a typically strong impression.
Non-family members are Alex’s colorful London pal, Paul Danziger (Odiseas Georgiadis); Susan Reynolds (Amelia Workman), the well-educated, attractive, pregnant woman whose house Peter is renovating, and who gets to quote Keats; and John Robinson (Leroy McClain), about whom I’ll say nothing other than that his presence and dramatic function are among the play’s greatest drawbacks.

The action ambles along, moving from scene to scene, with random emotional outbursts and a few solidly written and acted monologues. Strangely, the most tragic and far-reaching event is revealed in Act One almost casually, months after it occurs. An unconvincing “happy ending” brings everything to a close.
C.J. Wilson, Mary McCann. Photo: Ahron R. Foster. 
There’s not much here that hasn’t been seen in countless other domestic dramas, the playwright apparently trying not so much to inspire tension as to create a condition hinted at in the Keats quote, whose next and final line is “Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.” In other words, the inevitability of death and oblivion, fancy words for an aspiration the play fails to fully express.

Scott Pask’s unattractive, lumbering, two-story set, with its up center staircase, presents the interior of a sizable house. Oddly, its down left doorway, which opens into the house, is seen from its outside position; the play’s original production was in the round, obviating the need for Pask’s concessions. Assisted by Christopher Akerlind’s active lighting plot, the house serves for multiple interior and exterior locales.

In recent years, Simon Stephens’s imported plays have made significant contributions to the New York theatre. As we stand on the shore of the wide world, we look hopefully to the future for more and better works than this one.


Atlantic Theater Company/Linda Gross Theater
336 W. 26th St., NYC
Through October 8