‘The Children’ Broadway Review: How to Cope After a Nuclear Meltdown

Lucy Kirkwood has written a Big Issue play that recalls Martin McDonagh and Rod Serling, but goes to a much scarier place

“The Cows” would have made a better title. The poster for Lucy Kirkwood’s new play features its three actors suited up for what looks like a tour of a nuclear power plant, and emblazoned across their bundled-up bodies is her chosen title, “The Children.” This very scary, cautionary drama opened Tuesday at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, and there’s no doubt about it. Splashed across all that protective gear, “The Cows” would have been more provocative.

In “The Children,” Robin (Ron Cook) and Hazel (Deborah Findlay) talk about their cows as much as they do their four adult children. This long-married couple retired a few years ago from high-level positions in the nuclear-power industry to take it easy and start a dairy farm somewhere along the coast in England.

Like anyone who has retired to open, say, a bed and breakfast, the real headaches began with their retirement, which included a major meltdown at the local nuclear power plant.

Kirkwood has written a Big Issue play, and one of her more controversial points is how much some people prefer animals to other people, even when those other people are their own children. Animals are so wonderfully predictable in their behavior. And the cows, especially, are so much more appreciative of Robin and Hazel than is their oldest child, who, at 38, remains a real armful and then some.

Kirkwood never introduces us to the children or the cows, but the ultimate fate of the latter brings a huge sigh of sorrow and pity from the MTC audience. On the other hand, you might want to slap that oldest kid into consciousness.

“The Children” begins with a nosebleed from an unexpected guest, Rose (Francesca Annis). Robin and Hazel are living near the sea in a cottage lent to them because their own house got flooded in a tsunami that triggered the nuclear meltdown or was the result of it.

The reason behind Rose’s visit — Robin and Hazel haven’t laid eyes on her in over three decades — is the big mystery of Kirkwood’s play, which to its credit often resembles a vintage episode of “The Twilight Zone.” An ominous tension pervades the production even before anyone on stage speaks, thanks to the work of Miriam Buether (set and costumes), Peter Mumford (lighting and projections), and Max Pappenheim (sound), the team that also designed the original production at London’s Royal Court Theatre.

What with Rose’s bloody face and Hazel’s making a meager salad in the dampest of bare cottages, it also appears that we’re about to revisit the wasteland of Martin McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy.

First impressions, however, are very deceiving. The language of Kirkwood’s characters bristles with intelligence — these are nuclear physicists and engineers — and they use their prodigious backgrounds to make not only fascinating comments about children and cows but to dig under each other’s skin to extract the maximum amount of guilt and, in the end, responsibility.

And unlike Rod Serling, Kirkwood never gives her characters or her audience the relief of the expected big twist near the end, unless the cruelty of an environment run amok qualifies as a big surprise.

Politically, “The Children” is about a world that needs to get along on less. It’s also about retirement, and that Kirkwood wrote the play while in her early 30s is nothing short of astounding. She puts her three characters in an orbit spinning around that magical retirement age of 65.

They can still move, even dance, as we are shown in one brief moment of levity. But they know their mobility is destined for joint replacements and walkers and worse. They have a very small window in which to live the life they’ve always fantasized about — until Rose arrives to slam that window shut.

James Macdonald directs an extraordinary trio of actors. With fine precision, he buffets Findlay’s constantly fraught portrayal of a woman clinging to life through her illusions with the grounded resignation at the heart of Annis and Cook’s performances. You side with Findlay’s Hazel, but you believe the other two.