‘On the Shore of the Wide World’ Theater Review: Simon Stephens Stumbles in Multigenerational Saga

The brilliant playwright behind “Heisenberg” and “A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” suffers a rare misfire

on the shore of the wide world
Photo: Ahron R. Foster

Simon Stephens, the British playwright who has scored two Broadway hits in recent years with the brilliant Tony winner “A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and last season’s intriguing two-hander “Heisenberg,” has a surprising misfire with his latest New York production.

“On the Shore of the Wide World,” which opened Tuesday at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company, is a new iteration of a multigenerational family drama that was first produced in the U.K. in 2005.

But while Stephens has reworked the show repeatedly — removing chapter headings, trimming the original three-hour-20-minute running time to about two and a half hours — he still has not found a way to fulfill the promise of the Keats quote he’s selected as his title.

Instead, we’re left with a kind of truncated version of a TV miniseries about three generations of a working-class clan in Stephen’s native suburban Manchester, England.

Granddad (Peter Maloney) is a boozer who can be physically abusive toward his wife (Blair Brown), who’s a bit of a buttinski when it comes to her grown son (C.J. Wilson). He’s taken over his dad’s contracting business and settled into benumbed complacency with his own wife (Mary McCann), who frets about their two teenage sons (Ben Rosenfield and Wesley Zurick) and the elder’s girlfriend (Tedra Millan).

You feel that Stephens has enough material to fill a good 10-hour TV season — but instead we get only the broadest outlines of his central characters and the sketchiest versions of what has happened to them, including some plot twists that are both clumsily handled and frankly hard to swallow.

Indeed, the play’s most dramatic incident — involving the chatty 15-year-old younger son Christopher (Zurick, with the shakiest Manchester accent of the cast) — occurs entirely off-stage and so abruptly that it’s hard to register the shock of it.

Director Neil Pepe and his mostly game cast do what they can with the material but Stephens’ script leaves them mostly alone on that wide-worlded shore.