"The Retreat From Moscow," William Nicholson's family drama at Broadway's Booth Theatre, is a painful, personal journey.
Whether you are willing to go along for the mournful ride depends on your ability to overlook the play's occasional ponderous moments, its rhetorical excesses that have the author straining for metaphors and cosmic pronouncements.
But you can't dismiss it. There is some heartfelt writing here, and the evening is helped immeasurably by its strong cast, particularly the incandescent Eileen Atkins who portrays an abandoned wife. The actress totally inhabits the character, a tough-minded, bossy yet paradoxically vulnerable woman who is dumped by her husband (John Lithgow) after more than 30 years of marriage.
Until that moment, Alice had no idea that her relationship with Edward, a mild-mannered history teacher, was threatened by another woman. Their daily, domestic routine was one of her leading and his following: Alice working on an anthology of poems, Edward quietly doing crossword puzzles or immersed in a book about Napoleon's retreat from the Russian capital, a disaster that cost his army tens of thousands of lives. Still, some did survive.
The "Moscow" metaphor gets quite a workout, even before the curtain goes up. The audience is exposed to a huge painting by Adolphe Yvon of the horrific retreat. The art work rises to reveal a spare living-room set that designer John Lee Beatty has backdropped with a forest of stark branches. They almost look like thorns. A foreshadow of the suffering to come?
Lithgow excels at portraying the repressed, rumpled helpmate, a decent man who realizes he married the wrong woman and then didn't know, for three decades, how to get out of it. There is one particularly potent moment when Edward allows himself some self-pity and finally lashes out at his wife.
Much of the play deals with Alice's attempts to cope. "If we really were on the retreat from Moscow, he'd be the one who wouldn't make it, not me," she snarls at one point in her best survivor's voice.
The woman gets a dog, which she names Edward, and then teaches it to play dead. She also volunteers at an AIDS hot line. And contemplates murder.
There is a third person in the mix, the couples' thirtysomething son, Jamie, portrayed with convincing anguish by Ben Chaplin. The young actor has, perhaps, the evening's toughest assignment, having to be supportive and critical in equal measure of both parents.
Nicholson, who also wrote the C.S. Lewis drama, "Shadowlands," eventually allows the fireworks to fizzle and he can't quite come up with an ending.
But then, there may not be one. "The thing about unhappiness is, after a while it stops being interesting." says Alice. She's right, but at least in the presence of someone as spellbinding as Eileen Atkins, you know an amazing actress has done her best to make things work on stage.
It would be easy to see William Nicholson's "The Retreat From Moscow" as an old-fashioned play.
It is, after all, about a dated subject -the dissolution of a marriage -and its characters are thoroughly middleclass.
How retro can you get?
But from the start, "Retreat" is a much harsher play than its civilized surface would suggest. In fact, it is the disparity between the characters' genteel, if chilly, behavior and the intense emotions they strive to conceal that gives the play its power.
The subtlety of the writing and the incendiary skill of its three-person cast make Nicholson's work a truly devastating piece of theater.
Edward, a British secondary-school history teacher (John Lithgow), is reading to his poetry-loving wife, Alice (Eileen Atkins), and their amiable thirtysomething son Jamie (Ben Chaplin) from the diary of one of Napoleon's soldiers on their retreat from their humiliating defeat.
As the troops plod home, they pillage the countryside to support themselves and, more importantly, to humiliate their foes.
It is a savage image and comes to be a metaphor for the marriage we watch unravel. Similarly, when Edward says he tries when he teaches to remember that "it all started with a sense of wonder," we know he is talking about his marriage.
The dialogue's indirection is matched by a similar restraint in the acting. At one point, for example, Alice suggests acidly that she and Edward could talk. "People do, you know," she says.
As he puts down his newspaper to comply it has the air of a man unsheathing a sword.
Atkins is an actress who deepens everything she does. Alice's lines could lend themselves to a brittle, caustic characterization, but in Atkins eyes, we see wounds and a sorrow that make even her drollest observations seem valiant, if hopeless, efforts at self-preservation.
Edward's fumbling attempts to do the right thing could easily seem inept or needlessly cruel, but Lithgow endows him with a fallible humanity that makes him sympathetic. Chaplin plays Jamie with sad, wry dignity.
The performances have been molded together beautifully by director Dan Sullivan.
John Lee Beatty's set captures the play's elegiac quality.
"The Retreat From Moscow" is that Broadway rarity, a play for adults, challengingly written and performed.
A 33-year-old marriage ends -a marriage that seemed as fixed in its course as the stars, one seemingly meant to finish with someone's rueful tears in a lonely cemetery.
That is the gist, or at least the proposition, of William Nicholson's play "The Retreat from Moscow," which opened last night at the Booth Theater.
Mind you, it wasn't really a happy marriage. Alice (Eileen Atkins) always wants more from her husband, the emotionally uptight Edward (John Lithgow), who wants only a quiet life. Or perhaps a new love.
Their only son, Jamie (Ben Chaplin), is visiting from London, and he enters a quietly embattled camp, where husband and wife trade the trivial commonplace chit-chat of a stale marriage, his mother busy with her poetry anthology, his father trying to read of the hardships of Napoleon's army in its retreat from Moscow.
Father and, to a lesser extent, son are typical examples of English inhibitions shading off lazily into messy reticence. The mother, sinking into genteel but shrewish neuroticism, tries to get some kind of reaction from her stolid husband and remote son.
The situation can't last, and it doesn't. Edward, a teacher, has met a younger woman, the single mother of one of his pupils. Sun is about to enter his life. Sun and guilt.
For, as the playwright hammers home, just as the survivors of Napoleon's epic retreat feel culpable for their weaker comrades left to die in the Russian snow, so Edward feels horribly liable for his betrayed wife - although he cannot go back.
The trouble with the play is that it is too much like a play, or, worse, rather like a schematic situation in a novel. It's painful, and despite neat touches of gallows humor, it's harrowing, but not totally lifelike.
Nicholson, best known for his play and movie about C.S. Lewis, "Shadowlands," has here conceived a situation that's obvious from the start, in which any of the hinted surprises would be set up as melodramatic.
The easygoing but effective staging by Daniel Sullivan has the right idiomatic fluency, while John Lee Beatty's scenery, starting off with a frontcloth based on Adolphe Yvon's famous epic painting "The Retreat from Moscow," is most effective in the tangled domestic jungle of branches dominating the setting.
Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, the actors themselves seem more credible than the characters they are playing. All three are formidable technicians and inspired performers.
The poetry-spouting Alice makes a marvelous vehicle for Atkins, and not unexpectedly the lady is marvelous in it. Her pained looks, jaunty despair and controlled near-craziness with its manipulative shafts at blackmail are superb, as is her gently commanding presence.
Lithgow, looking wonderfully defeated and dangerously troubled, is at his best, and the promising Chaplin - once so good in "The Glass Menagerie" - proves excellent as the son bounced between the battling parents, even narrowly carrying off the bathetic final speech with which Nicholson weakly closes the play.
Brrr. An early, unforgiving and highly symbolic winter has descended upon the stage of the Booth Theater, where a dreary domestic drama called ''The Retreat From Moscow'' opened last night.
True, it is still only October, but this is a season of the heart we're talking about. And for William Nicholson's play about the death of a marriage, which stars Eileen Atkins and John Lithgow, the designer John Lee Beatty has devised a whopping scenic metaphor: the walls and screens of the set have been garlanded, ceiling to floor, with patterns of branches from which all leaves have fallen, every last one.
If you are the kind of person who finds apt poetic quotations always leaping to mind, like the unhappy wife played by Dame Eileen, you might think of Shakespeare's line about ''bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.''
On the other hand, after watching ''The Retreat From Moscow'' (which for the record is set in contemporary England, not 19th-century Russia), you are more likely to feel like socking the next person who spouts poetry at you.
It's not only the trees that are skeletal in this stark production, directed rather listessly by Daniel Sullivan. From the play's opening scene, the characters show few of the signs of organic life that warm a theatergoer's hopes. This despite the promising participation of performers of the high, repeatedly proven caliber of Dame Eileen and Mr. Lithgow as the disaffected spouses, assisted by the appealing British film actor Ben Chaplin as their son.
Mr. Lithgow is the actor who managed to emerge from the musical car wreck called ''Sweet Smell of Success'' with a Tony Award, his third. And on stages in London and New York, Dame Eileen's elegant craftsmanship and deliciously dry way with a line has moored wayward and wispy productions of plays like ''Indiscretions'' and ''The Unexpected Man.''
As for Mr. Nicholson, his credits include the Oscar-winning movie ''Gladiator'' and, more to the immediate point, the play ''Shadowlands,'' seen on Broadway in 1990 with Nigel Hawthorne and Jane Alexander and transformed into a 1993 film starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. The story of the tragic, late-blooming love of the scholarly English novelist C. S. Lewis and the American poet Joy Gresham, ''Shadowlands'' offered a satisfying cry for those who like their soap operas with academic credentials.
So a certain suds quotient was to be expected in ''The Retreat From Moscow.'' But with Dame Eileen and Mr. Lithgow churning up the bubbles, how bad could it be? Well, Dame Eileen does have a few aerated moments, in which her character flirts tauntingly with madness. But the overall effect is of three talented performers doing their best to keep afloat in old dishwater.
The show's basic plot has done service on Broadway many, many times over the last century: a husband realizes his marriage is a sham and walks out on his wife, who must learn to face the world alone. In this instance, the tone is less reminiscent of vintage tales of infidelity by Rattigan and Maugham than of latter-day television dramas and, from time to time, sitcom episodes -- the sort summarized in TV Guide with descriptions like ''Phoebe gets caught in the middle of her parents' divorce.''
Mr. Nicholson seems to be trying to replicate the formula of ''Shadowlands.'' Once again, it is the woman who is the more aggressive and abrasive partner, trying to coax a reticent, soft-spoken man into active emotional engagement. And once again, the central conflict is given a patina of intellectual gloss.
Alice (Dame Eileen) is assembling an anthology of love poems, while her husband, Edward (Mr. Lithgow), a history teacher, has become obsessed with a book about the disastrous retreat of Napoleon's troops from Moscow in 1812. This allows Alice to recite moody lines by George Herbert and Robert Frost, among others, while Edward draws instructive lessons from a historic debacle about what it takes to survive in life. Their son, Jamie (Mr. Chaplin), spends a lot of time listening with a pained expression.
The highbrow allusions are mostly a matter of gilding the ragweed. Though ''Retreat'' was evidently inspired by the divorce of Mr. Nicholson's parents and no doubt shaped by deeply felt first-hand experience, an emotional sterility pervades the production.
Almost everything said sounds borrowed and threadbare: from the Catholic Alice's mother-knows-best debates about God with her agnostic son to her vengefully naming her dog after her estranged husband; from Edward's lyrical monologue about meeting the young Alice on a train to Jamie's strained postscript of an elegy for his parents' relationship. You can anticipate the shapes and conclusions of these revelatory speeches from their first lines.
Similarly, once the play sets up its basic triangle of the fierce, combative Alice and the two more passive men in her life, it never goes anywhere you don't expect. Mr. Chaplin's and Mr. Lithgow's roles are essentially reactive, rooted in that tortured stoicism long associated with upper-middle-class Englishmen. It is understandable that they sometimes appear to be on automatic pilot as they flinch before Dame Eileen's assaults.
Alice, who is described as having torn off her clothes on a school playing field to get Edward's attention, is clearly a juicier part. And Dame Eileen brings some quirky, subtly scary gestures and line readings to Alice's fraught first reunion with Edward after he leaves home. Given her character's occasionally extreme behavior, Dame Eileen admirably resists gnawing the scenery, though it might liven things up if she succumbed.
There is very little scenery to chew, by the way. Aside from all those creepy bare branches that frame the stage, Mr. Beatty has provided just a few rudimentary pieces of furniture that look as if they might have been picked up at Ikea that afternoon.
Presumably, the idea is to create a sense of the transience of things that as children we need to believe are absolute: home, family, the love between our parents. But the abiding impression is of a bald outline of a familiar story still waiting to find fresh form.
No matter how many marriages end in divorce, the split is rarely without agony. And so it is with the breakup of the 33-year English-country marriage of the adventurous, unhappy Alice, who recites poetry without being asked, and the passive, unhappy Edward, who has fallen in love with a woman who understands him as - sigh - the wife never did.
And that's about it for William Nicholson's "The Retreat From Moscow," which opened last night at the Booth Theatre with a dream cast and a first-class creative team - but depressingly little to say about a family shattered from within.
Of course, there is pleasure, sometimes even bliss, in watching the exquisitely shrewd Eileen Atkins dig away at her character, the acutely unstable Alice, as she first abuses, then clings pathetically to the man who no longer wants her. And it is fascinating to watch John Lithgow submerge his imposing self and American exuberance into an Englishman so detached from his existence that he almost seems to disappear into his armchair to read about Napoleon's military catastrophe in Russia and do crossword puzzles. Lithgow's Edward has the blank, flinching demeanor of a man about to be struck. Atkins' Alice is so desperate to get his attention that once she does, literally, strike him.
William Nicholson, the English playwright best known on Broadway and on film for "Shadowlands," is said to have based this 1999 work on his own parents' relationship. The third character, Jamie (Ben Chaplin), is the 32-year-old son who lives alone in London but cannot help being torn by both sides of his loved ones' despair.
Instead of gnawing closer and closer to the bone, however, the play just gets more maudlin and messy. As much as we appreciate the luxury of Atkins' melancholy oboe of a voice and her piercing intelligence, the actress seems too smart and competent to be this nagging, self-pitying, pious, clingy woman whose advice to her lonely son is to go to Mass and who, even before she tries to blackmail her husband with suicide, seems a bit closer to deranged than eccentric.
Then there is the poetry problem. Alice, conveniently, is working on the "lost love" section of her anthology of English poetry - although Nicholson never gives her enough context in the real world to help us know if she's an academic or just a dilettante. Either way, this is the sort of unlikely woman who, after her computer printer breaks, launches into a Robert Frost poem about "finalities besides the grave."
Her husband and son seem not to mind being forced to play name-that-poem, though, in a play that feels long at 2 1/4 hours, the frequent lovely quotations feel like filler - if not, you know, a bit of authorial cheating amid the banalities.
Nor is Alice the only one saddled with forced literary devices. Edward, a history and part-time religion teacher, is extremely taken by horrific diaries of Napoleon's soldiers during the retreat from Moscow. Especially in the beginning, even before Alice does her monologue about a society that would rather buy a new printer than fix the old one, Edward is reading aloud about frozen skin and exposed bones in the icy land. He has one line that, in retrospect, is important to the drama: "When it's a matter of survival, people show no mercy." Similarly, as we look back on Alice's irrelevant fiasco with the printer, we remember her complaining, even then, about people "taking the easy way out." Imagine, then, how she will soon feel when her husband announces that he is leaving.
Jamie is less a son than a dramatic prop and Chaplin, so memorable in the movie "The Truth About Cats and Dogs," creates as much of a character as he can without material. Daniel Sullivan directs sensitively but cannot escape the mawkish inevitabilities.
The family home has been beautifully designed by John Lee Beatty to suggest a world both cozy and suffocating. The oak chairs are as mismatched as the marriage. The walls and the land beyond the house are a dark tangle of gnarled branches - an almost scary visualization of Alice's insistence that she and Edward are "all plaited and intertwined together."
Poor Edward wears the same tie, vest and tweed jacket (by Jane Greenwood) through the weeks - or is it months? ... or is it years? Only Alice gets a change of baggy sweaters. Why? If there is some heavy symbolism here, we missed it altogether.
If stereotypes are based on general truths, then The Retreat From Moscow (**½ out of four) offers a sobering look at the conflicting foibles of men and women.
At first blush, this play by William Nicholson, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Booth Theatre, offers enough cultural and sociological clichés to fuel an entire season of made-for-TV movies. The focus is on an English couple whose marriage of nearly 33 years is falling apart. The wife, Alice, feeling frumpy and neglected, has grown increasingly needy. Husband Edward, conversely, acts aloof and turns to another woman.
Oh, they have a grown son, too. And when his parents' union dissolves, Jamie finds himself reassessing his own relationship issues in light of their experience and influence.
As its title suggests, Moscow is also saddled with a string of recurring historical and military metaphors, which are used with such obviousness that you half expect an English teacher to walk on stage and explain their relevance to the family's problems.
Still, thanks to Daniel Sullivan's supple, nuanced direction of a fine cast, some compelling insights manage to peek through the more predictable elements of Nicholson's story.
The interplay among Sullivan's three actors is especially crucial to Moscow's qualified success. All deliver performances that are sharply naturalistic and never overstated. As Alice, Eileen Atkins convincingly conjures the desperation of an intelligent, strong-minded woman who for both personal and generational reasons cannot fathom life without a male partner and protector.
John Lithgow's passively destructive Edward is a potent foil. While we sympathize with his predicament, it becomes clear that his sense of being debased by Alice owes much to his own lack of gumption. And his disregard for his estranged wife's pain conveys both callousness and weakness.
But the most challenging task falls to Ben Chaplin, who as Jamie must watch the people he loves most reveal their worst flaws and react without betraying his own character's tendency toward emotional repression. Chaplin is wry and tender in all the right places. His scenes with Atkins are especially affecting, capturing the poignant awkwardness that can afflict a man confronted with his mother's vulnerability.
At the end, Jamie delivers a short soliloquy that alludes to his situation in disappointingly banal terms. Still, thanks to Chaplin and his colleagues, Moscow is worth a visit.
There is much fine, true writing in William Nicholson's "The Retreat From Moscow," but guess what? Little of it is contributed by the play's author. This lugubrious divorce drama is laced with quotations from various poets -- everyone from George Herbert to Robert Frost to Rainer Maria Rilke gets a stanza or two -- but the highly literate camouflage cannot disguise the essentially meretricious nature of the play. Nicholson would have us believe that the unraveling marriage of two tiresome characters is a tragedy worthy of comparison to the grim rout of the title -- a maneuver during which, we are reminded, more than 400,000 died.
Yes, it's time to add another entry to the Broadway crime blotter. Last week's victim was movie star Hugh Jackman, and this time it's an estimable stage actress, Eileen Atkins, taking a painful hit. Her valiant struggle to reconcile the mess of contradictions in her character is even more difficult to watch than Jackman's battle with the vacuous "Boy From Oz." At least Jackman got to divert us with a little song and dance; Atkins only has snippets of poetry for a fig leaf.
Alice, the dissatisfied wife Atkins labors to bring to life, is surely one of the most persistently and variously unpleasant characters to hold center stage in a Broadway play.
In the play's opening minutes, we listen as she takes petty exception to every innocuous utterance from her withdrawn husband, Edward (John Lithgow). When he mentions that their son, Jamie (Ben Chaplin), said it had taken him a while to drive down from London, she is astonished. "He can't have," she insists. "Why not?" "Because it's such a stupid and pointless thing to talk about. Why would he say anything so ridiculously dull?"
It seems that through 30 years of family life, Alice has remained ignorant of that everyday lubricant of social intercourse known as small talk.
If Alice is outraged at this trifle, you can only imagine how she reacts to such dire offenses as Edward's fondness for crossword puzzles, his forgetfulness when it comes to daily chores or his vague plans for their anniversary. Jamie himself is buttonholed on issues large and small, everything from his single status to his faith. (Alice is a devout Catholic, although apparently she is not of the opinion that charity begins at home.)
Alice's Grand Inquisitor act really gets rolling when she brings up the larger issue of the couple's emotionally barren marriage. Imagine Edward Albee's George and Martha, minus the wit -- actually, minus George -- and you'd have some sense of this wearying exchange.
"I want a real marriage," Alice whines, but what is missing in Nicholson's depiction of this relationship is any sense of how Alice and Edward could have negotiated 30 years of intimacy on these terms.
George and Martha, for all their flagrant enmity, were believable as a couple who had found a comfortable equilibrium in their misery, tossing taunts back and forth as in a game of pingpong. But who has Alice been playing pingpong with for the last 30 years? Edward, it seems, has been curled up in an armchair, reading history and doing the crosswords.
If Nicholson's view of the strains in a long marriage feels distorted, his depiction of the actual breakup is even more suspect. Although their mutual unhappiness appears to be her favorite conversational topic, Alice is dumbfounded when Edward announces, quite sensibly, that he's leaving. Her incredulity seems more a symptom of general obtuseness than the emotionally instability that is vaguely hinted at.
And Alice's subsequent behavior -- hysterical pleading gradually gives way to cool suicide threats -- is no less puzzling: How is it possible that this intelligent woman, with a loving son, an abiding faith and a deep reverence for poetry, could find life untenable without the man who has been boring her senseless for three decades?
It isn't really possible -- the character is continually thrust into false positions for dubious dramatic purposes. And Atkins, one of the finest actresses on either side of the Atlantic, cannot succeed in knitting together the clashing strands of Alice's personality into a believable whole. It's a measure of the writing's stridency that this infinitely subtle performer often strikes blunt emotional notes here: What else can she do?
If the character of Alice is almost too substantial, the other two are nearly devoid of substance. Lithgow's quiet, economical performance is unable to supply much interesting color to his henpecked husband. And although Chaplin is a sensitive actor, Jamie is practically a talking ottoman, pushed onstage whenever Alice and Edward need someone to respond to their complaints.
The drama is played on a chilly, stylized set by John Lee Beatty that honors the playwright's desire to give cosmic significance to his wan domestic drama. In addition to those frequent dips into the Norton Anthology of Poetry, there are repeated allusions to the military folly of the title.
"Is it my duty to save my comrade's life, even at the risk of losing my own? Or am I permitted, am I entitled, to do what is necessary for my own survival?" Edward wonders, metaphorically.
"She feels this is a part of something bigger. Like a war. And she's one of the casualties," Jamie responds.
"The Retreat From Moscow" is certainly not the first play to use martial imagery to amplify a domestic conflict, but it's certainly among the most humorless, notwithstanding some cheap gags about Alice's new dog (she names it Edward).
Directed with respectful somberness by Daniel Sullivan, it wears its bleakness like a military badge of honor. "We each have to carry our own burden," Jamie tells Alice. "But you're like the explorer. You're further down the road ... So if after a while you don't go on anymore, I'll know the road is too hard, for too long. I'll know that in the end the unhappiness wins." Nicholson seems to be unaware that a play can be miserable without being meaningful. And vice versa.