‘Earthquakes in London’ at Steep: Our roiling planet may soon resemble a fractured family
Review: “Earthquakes in London” by Mike Bartlett, directed by Jonathan Berry, at Steep Theatre through March 18. ★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Seeing a play at Steep Theatre is likely to take you to one end or the other of a wide spectrum. Steep tends to deal in drama that steers you off the road, if not off the rails.
At the one extreme fall intimate, harrowing plays like Simon Stephens’ “Wastwater” and “Motortown.” At the opposite reach you’ll find ambitiously scaled, complex projects like Laura Wade’s “Posh” — and the matter at hand, Mike Bartlett’s “Earthquakes in London,” an intriguing excursion that conflates garden variety family dysfunction with nothing less than the end of days. The show closes March 18, and it’s worth catching – not for its perfection (it is imperfect), but for its rigorous melding of intricate, credible characters and a provocative foray into magical realism.
“Earthquakes in London” reminds me a bit of the film “Deep Impact.” Even as we’re looking at impending disaster for humanity, on the shifting ground people are still people, still making messes of their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Here, the ultimate bad parent, a genius-level scientist who sees climate change plunging the world toward an early end, offers his daughters – he has three – this fatherly counsel: Don’t ever have children; they would be doomed.
The sisterly relationship among the three women might challenge credibility. Were my own siblings and I not spread over 17 years, I might look with some doubt on the eldest of the daughters, government worker and environmental watchdog Sarah (the elegant Cindy Marker) as the sister of the youngest girl, Jasmine (Sarah Price), a free spirit who steers clear of the family. I was constantly reminding myself that the two were not mother and daughter.
The middle sister, housewife and – yikes! – expecting mother Freya (Lucy Carapetyan in a performance of real dramatic substance and mettle), represents the fulcrum on which the play turns. Warned by her doom-saying father to terminate the unborn child, Freya is at a loss over what to do. Her eventual decision sweeps us into an altogether new realm.
Meanwhile, Freya’s husband Steve (Nick Horst), noting his wife’s distraction, makes a secretive trip to confront her father. The old man is pretty straightforward about it all: Of course he told her to get rid of it. The world is a foul place, and down is about to trade places with up. Then the old guy waxes philosophical and observes that we jagged and tempestuous creatures are all more or less walking earthquakes. I admit to flinching and wishing he hadn’t proffered that treacly, ham-handed metaphor. (I prefer to think of us all as star stuff, but I suppose that notion was taken, and besides what sort of title would “Star Stuff in London” be?)
What I’m likely to remember longest about Bartlett’s play is the ice-blooded airline executive played with mesmerizing purpose by Peter Moore. What a marvelously dreadful character. Never mind all the pollution the endless thousands of daily flights pump into the air, and what that precipitates on the ground, this man is pushing for an airport expansion in London to accommodate still more flights.
But he’s going to be blocked by Marker’s high-minded Sarah, principled politician and guardian of Mother Earth. The airline exec never blinks. He just coolly pushes back. Yet she is no less adamant. He’s going to lose. And then Moore’s super salesman, who, well, really admires this intelligent and forthright woman, has a brilliant idea, a proposition. Ah, unbelievable – or rather, only too believable.
How is this all to be resolved? There’s the rub, there’s the required Act II that converts a good idea for a play into a great play. Alas, the author turns his engaging, often fierce narrative onto easy street. He spins it into something akin to kiddie theater. The closing flourish is hopeful enough. It’s also an eye-roller. Or maybe it’s just camp.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
- Up next at Steep Theatre: Lauren Yee’s “Hookman”