by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
"The Retreat from Moscow--A Metaphor For A Broken Marriage"
By William Nicholson
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
The Booth Theater
222 West the Street
Opened October 23, 2003
Reviewed October 31, 2003 by Margaret Croyden

There is one theme in "The Retreat From Moscow" --it is the breakup of a marriage. A very staid English couple, Edward and Alice, married more than three decades, split--not amicably but with rancor, regrets, and anguish. And heartbreak for the woman, naturally. Edward and Alice have a son, Jamie, who finds himself in the middle and cannot and will not take sides. The breakup is sudden but not unexpected. When the first scene begins, Alice is nagging her husband about his character and his inability to face his faults and, as a result, she says the marriage is suffering. As her complaints are repeated incessantly, she comes across as a insufferable pest. All the while the husband calmly reads a history book (he is a teacher) about Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, a torturous and brutal fact (like the marriage). More engrossed in his book that in his wife, he answers her in monosyllables, and will not be drawn into the conversation which one assumes he has heard before. Unaware that she has been getting on Edward's nerves (for years), and cannot get a rise out of him, she nags her son, Jamie, a young man in his thirties. It turns out she is a religious devotee and tries to convince Jamie to believe in God, a belief he does not share with his mother; nevertheless, she goes on, unaware that her persistence does not endear her to him (or to us, for that matter). Finally, in a later scene, Edward tells her he has found another woman, with whom he has fallen love, and wants a divorce. Understandably Alice has a fit.

When a man leaves a woman or vice versa, of course it is extremely painful particularly when the divorce is not mutual.

But owing to the playwright's sensibilities or lack thereof, we do not feel sorry for Alice. The writer William Nicholson has depicted her as a nagging shrew, a control freak, a super critic of everyone but herself. True the breakup causes her breakdown: her dignity is destroyed when she begs Edward to change his mind, but when the situation is finalized, she becomes obsessively bitter, calls her husband a murderer, and her love turns to pure hate. Which makes her a very unsympathetic character, despite the fact that this often happens in a divorce. We do not see any other side of Alice; no scene shows any characteristics beside the negative ones so that she comes across as one dimensional. On the other hand, Edward is portrayed as a quiet, suffering soul who has the strength to find love elsewhere and comes off as sensitive and fair. That's what wrong with this story. The pair are not dealt with equally. And that's too bad especially when the second act is redundant; there is a lot of ranting and yelling and no insight into what made the two marry in the first place and stay together thirty years. True, Edward tells his son that he Edward, got off on the wrong foot almost immediately, but why ? And Alice doesn't talk about the past at all, except that they once had had some idyllic time in India. But what made them the odd couple? Particularly what made Alice fall in love with the man who she treats more or less with contempt and disrespect?

The best thing about the production is Eileen Atkins and John Lithgow in the main roles. Ms. Atkins can always be relied upon to give a brilliant performance. Her credits are enormous, having acted in every kind of play, both in London and New York, and she has often been seen in films and television; in fact she was the co-writer with Jean Marsh of the unforgettable television series "Upstairs Downstairs." We expect her to be wonderful and she is. Her fluidity and range are spectacular; the moment the husband tells her of his decision to leave her, her breakdown is instant; she is in shock, in disbelief, in denial and in hysterics all at once. It is an amazing piece of acting, the best theatrical moment in the play. John Lithgow has a more difficult role. He needs to be calm, introverted, repressed; he has no spectacular scene to play but Lithgow gives a compelling performance nevertheless. But finally, it is hard to see these two as a couple which may be the fault of the writer or the director, rather than these two actors. However Ben Chaplin as the son is somewhat colorless. Perhaps he is supposed to be low key, like the father, but he shows no emotion at all; his performance is flat and out of synch with the other two.

Yet the play draws one's attention; marriage is always a fascinating topic but a pity the playwright did not uncover more of the characters' inner life. To be sure, love and marriage sometimes disintegrate for no obvious reason, but if one writes a play about that subject, reasons must be more apparent than what is shown in "The Retreat From Moscow." [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's latest book, "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000," is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux.


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