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Off-Broadway Review—Simon Stephens’ “On the Shore of the Wide World”

On the Shore of the Wide World
Written by Simon Stephens; directed by Neil Pepe
Performances through October 8, 2017
Ben Rosenfeld, C.J. Wilson and Tedra Millan in On the Shore of the Wide World (photo: Ahron R. Foster)
Simon Stephens’s ambitious plays include The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which daringly got inside an autistic teen’s headspace thanks to Marianne Elliott’s astonishing Tony-winning staging; and Heisenberg, a routine May-September romance between an elderly man and a younger woman whose dullness was saved on Broadway solely by a luminous Mary-Louise Parker. 
In between sits On the Shore of the Wide World, a 2005 effort titled after a line from a John Keats poem, belatedly getting its New York premiere.
Three generations of the Holmes family muddle through their quotidian 21st century existence in the north of England. There are two brothers—teens Alex and Christopher (smitten with Alex’s new girlfriend, Sarah)—their parents Peter and Alice, and Peter’s own father and mother, Ellen and Charlie. 
After one of the brothers is killed in an accident, it sends shock waves through the family, and the bulk of the play deals with coming to grips with that loss by taking tentative steps toward rebuilding their lives and relationships.
The major problem with the play is that these are indistinct characters with muddled motivations and a manner that’s subdued to the point of being somnolent. Maybe Stephens is showing the ultimate British stiff-upper-lip sensibility, but when Peter mentions the death of his son to Susan, the mom-to-be whose house he is renovating, it’s the first time the audience has heard about it and it feels like cheating: why is such a momentous event handled in an “oh by the way” manner, and in a conversation with a relative stranger some weeks after it happened?
By omitting immediate reactions to the biggest dramatic incident in the Holmes family’s lives, Stephens shortchanges both the characters and the play they inhabit, ensuring that everything from that point is greeted with audience skepticism: the playwright is playing untrustworthy games.
Too often the characters are mere chess pieces placed by their author into contrived situations. When grandfather Charlie is rushed to the hospital with a seemingly serious ailment, it ends up being for purposes of obvious dramatic irony as his son Peter comes to visit and confess his lifelong love-hate for his own dad. 
And when Alice meets John, the father of the boy who accidentally killed her son, they embark on an improbable (but platonic!) relationship, replete with delicious home-cooked meals, that exists solely as an inelegant parallel to the equally unconvincing bond between Peter and Susan.
Since there’s little coherence in the story’s strands or emotional resonance in the characters, even a first-rate staging doesn’t help. Director Neil Pepe sensitively paces the action—there are many scenes, some brief, some lingering, in several locales (the canny set design is by Scott Pask)—and gets affecting performances by a mainly American cast whose British accents sometimes waver but whose grasp of these sketchy people feels more lived-in than they deserve.
Blair Brown is a subdued but transfixing Ellen, Peter Maloney his usual ornery self as Charlie, Mary McCann a riveting bundle of raw nerves as Alice, C.J. Wilson a trenchantly expressive Peter, Ben Rosenfeld and Wesley Zurick finely wrought as the brothers, and Tedra Millan just right as Sarah—this, her first stage appearance after she nearly stole Present Laughter from Kevin Kline, confirms her as one of our most promising performers, on and off Broadway.
On the Shore of the Wide World
Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street, New York, NY

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