Friday, September 8, 2017

On the Shore of the Wide World

The central theme of Simon Stephens On the Shore of the Wide World, currently playing at the Atlantic Theater Company is stated early in the play “Have you ever done something or thought something and realized that your whole life would never be the same again?” Stephens adapted Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for Broadway. The playwright's leitmotifs unfold like the layers of an onion, but there are certain recurrent images: cigarettes (or fags as they are poignantly referred to throughout the play), booze, soccer and death. The setting is northern England and Manchester United  constitutes the soccer piece. The play begins with its two youthful protagonists Alex Holmes (Ben Rosenfield) and Sarah Black (Tedra Millan) losing their virginity to each other. Their obsession with cigarettes anticipates the loss of innocence. Alex’s grandfather, Charlie Holmes (Peter Maloney) can never undo the effect his alcoholic behavior has had on his wife, Ellen (Blair Brown). And there's one moment in the play that's particularly artfully presented. Alex’s little brother Chris (Wesley Zurick) has been killed by a motorist while riding his bike. There's no great melodrama and the revelation is almost presented as an afterthought. It just comes out in casual conversation. But it illustrates how life will never be the same for Chris and Alex’s father, Peter (C.J. Wilson) and mother Alice (Mary McCann). The play also contains a particularly amusing aside about publishing. One of Peter's clients is an executive who describes how she has studied for years so she can sit behind a desk stabbing others in the back. On the Shore of the Wide World has the quality of well-crafted and moving short story--say something by William Trevor or Alice Munro--or one of those serialized British television dramas where veterans actors (like the splendid cast assembled here) acquit themselves in lilting regional brogues. Peter, for instance, earns his livelihood as a house restorer and if we equate house with family, then house restoration describes the plot of the play. Everything is irrevocable, but life goes on. It’s hard to find too much to criticize in the stalwart interchanges, expertly choreographed by Neil Pepe, who directed, but one might say about the disquisition what's often said about boredom. You can write about inevitability, but it shouldn’t feel inevitable. Stephens has beautifully presented the chrysalis of his story in act one. But it’s hard to justify all the coloring in that goes on after the intermission. Sometimes less can be more and scenes like one where Charlie Holmes justifies his behavior by describing the vagaries of his miserable childhood take the air out of the room.

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