'On the Shore of the Wide World': Theater Review

Courtesy of Ahron R. Foster
C.J. Wilson and Mary McCann in 'On the Shore of the Wide World'
Tediously uninvolving.
10/8/2017

Off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater company presents the New York premiere of this 2005 Olivier Award-winning drama by Simon Stephens, author of 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' and 'Heisenberg.'

Three generations of a British family deal with desperation and loss in Simon Stephens’ award-winning play receiving its New York premiere courtesy of off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company. But something seems to have been lost in the transatlantic crossing of this effort by the acclaimed author of such dramas as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Heisenberg. Winner of the Olivier Award for best new play in 2005, On the Shore of the Wide World — the title stems from a Keats sonnet — is a slog to endure, at once dramatically overstuffed and curiously lifeless.  

Stephens crams his play with characters, and neither it nor an intricate multilevel set are able to accommodate his narrative sprawl. Most of the working-class men and women we meet are members of the Holmes family, who live in the Manchester suburb of Stockport (from which the playwright hails). Grandparents Ellen (Blair Brown) and Charlie (Peter Maloney) are essentially merely co-existing, their relationship strained by years of Charlie’s heavy drinking. The marriage of their son Peter (C.J. Wilson), a home restorer, and his wife Alice (Mary McCann) is equally joyless, with Peter at one point having to literally request that she kiss him on the lips. Their 18-year-old son Alex (Ben Rosenfield) has recently taken up with the bubbly, sexy Sarah (Tedra Millan), who his younger brother Christopher (Wesley Zurick) desperately covets.

Beyond these three generations of Holmeses, Stephens’ play also includes appearances by Alex’s sketchy best friend Paul (Odiseas Georgiadis); Peter’s pregnant client Susan (Amelia Workman), who introduces him to the pleasures of poetry and mango juice; and John (Leroy McClain), a stranger with whom Alice strikes up an unlikely friendship.

Set over the course of a year, the drama includes incidents both minor (Alex and Sarah decamp to London) and major (the tragic death of a main character), with such plot elements as a cancer diagnosis and flirtations with adultery on the part of both Peter and Alice thrown into the soap opera-like mix.

And while the characters and situations are delineated effectively enough, the play’s staccato, episodic style proves off-putting. Running over two and a half hours, the work is composed mainly of brief scenes, ending in blackouts, and they rarely strike any dramatic or comedic sparks. Some moments do resonate, such as Charlie attempting to defend himself to his accusatory grandson and admitting to his son that he almost had an affair and still thinks about the woman every day of his life. But more often than not the short encounters seem to be over before anything interesting happens.

Curiously, all of these short scenes result in the play feeling longer than it actually is. Director Neil Pepe only accentuates the weaknesses of the writing with his somnolent pacing and visually drab production, often shrouded in darkness, lulling you into slumber.

It’s a shame because the production features a lot of strong acting talent (although the British accents are on the variable side). Veterans Maloney and Brown are the standouts, even if the latter feels sadly underutilized. But the ensemble is strong across-the-board, with particularly notable work by Ronsenfield as the volatile Alex and Wilson and McCann as the couple struggling to save their marriage.  

That the characters have such difficulty expressing their emotions, while perhaps true to the working-class milieu, ultimately impairs our ability to truly care about them. They seem to have given up on themselves long ago, and by the end of the long evening we’ve come to share their malaise.

Venue: Linda Gross Theater, New York
Cast: Blair Brown, Odiseas Georgiadis, Peter Maloney, Mary McCann, LeRoy McClain, Tedra Milan, Ben Rosenfield, C.J. Wilson, Amelia Workman, Wesley Zurick
Playwright: Simon Stephens
Director: Neil Pepe
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Sarah Laux
Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind
Music & sound designer: David Van Tieghem
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company

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