‘The Children’ review: An absorbing, thought-provoking play from Lucy Kirkwood

‘The Children’ runs at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through Feb. 4. 261 W. 47th St., manhattantheatreclub.com.

A grim post-apocalyptic drama dealing with nuclear science, cancer, climate change, mortality and morality is not exactly typical holiday-season fare.

But on closer examination, the cultural issues and character conflicts raised in Lucy Kirkwood’s sobering and absorbing new work “The Children” hark back to the very notion of giving — not gifts, but oneself — for the sake of community and future generations and out of a sense of personal responsibility.

It was a gutsy move on the part of Manhattan Theatre Club to bring the play straight to Broadway from London’s Royal Court Theatre with its original English cast. Although the 33-year-old Kirkwood has won acclaim abroad in recent years, this marks her first play to be seen in New York.

The visually stylized, well-acted production is directed by James Macdonald, who is best known in the U.S. for staging plays by the experimental English playwright Caryl Churchill (“Top Girls,” “Cloud 9”).

“The Children” is set in a coastal English village that is feeling the environmental effects of a nuclear plant meltdown. The small cottage inhabited by the characters is tilted at a sharp angle, indicating a ground shift has occurred.

It begins slowly and mysteriously. Rose (Francesca Annis), who is first seen with blood running down her nose, is paying a surprise visit to Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook), who are married. All three are retired nuclear engineers in their mid-to-late 60s who once worked at the local plant.

Eventually, Rose reveals the real reason for her visit: to organize a crew of former employees to return to the plant in the hope of containing the damage.

Would Hazel and Robin, who have been attempting to live in secluded peace despite some lingering guilt, like to come along and be subjected to radioactive poisoning?

Black humor occasionally pops up, as do secrets from the past. At one point, the characters listen to James Brown’s “Ain’t It Funky Now” and recreate a choreographed dance routine from 40 years earlier. But first and foremost, “The Children” is a social drama that is disturbing and thought-provoking.

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