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A CurtainUp Review

The Retreat from Moscow




I don't want a sunny marriage. I want a real marriage
---Alice, after "sunny" is the adjective Edward associates with marital contentment.
Eileen Atkins and John Lithgow
Eileen Atkins and John Lithgow
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
In The Retreat from Moscow William Nicholson has the dubious honor of using a terrific metaphor for the devastating downfall of a proper English marriage and then beating the life out of it with overuse. The title, the front cloth painting (replicating painter Adolphe Yvon's epic "Marshall Ney Supporting the Rear Guard During the Retreat From Moscow"), the opening scene's read out loud snippets from a history of the Napoleonic Army's retreat. . .  all clearly connect the symbolic dots between the historic Moscow event and the painful domestic battle we witness on stage. Retreat allusions are scattered all over the play like Hansel and Gretel's trail of breadcrumbs -- from the husband's retreat within himself, to his retreat from the marriage, to the wife's accusing him of murdering the marriage as a soldier will commit murder to survive war .

Fortunately Nicholson, a seasoned television script writer (his best known play, Shadowland, began on the small screen), knows how to write characters with the sort of thoughtful and intellectual patina to their conversations that allow audiences to guiltlessly, and in a single satisfying bite, savor a drama that might take up months of episodes in a daytime serial. Even more fortunately, The Retreat From Moscow that recently opened at the Booth Theater features three supremely gifted actors: John Lithgow plays Edward the husband retreating from the suburban London home that is the play's Moscow. Eileen Atkins is Alice, the wife who once dazzled him with her adventurousness and amazing memory for poetry but now has him so defeated by her demands for a " real marriage" that he makes one last stab to reclaim his identity by leaving her. Ben Chaplin is Jamie, the son who is unhappily drafted as the intermediary between the parents and as blood-spattered and wounded as they by their rocky marriage and separation.

Atkins has the showiest role of the trio as the wife who shows symptoms of hysteria even before her miscellaneous dissatisfactions and sense of something amiss in her thirty-three-year old marriage materialize into the major trauma of being a " left wife." It's something of a Jekyll and Hyde role -- the good Alice who's intelligent, charming, affectionate and has a sense of humor; the bad Alice who is confrontational, controlling and, at times, out of control --the defection from propriety chillingly illustrated by Edward's recollection of how she took off all her clothes on the playing field of the school where he teaches history so that he would really look at her.

It's a treat to watch Atkins expertly navigate this complex emotional terrain. Though Nicholson has stacked the decks so that the volatile Alice's nagging and self-righteous religiosity bears the brunt of the burden for the difficulties that have made most of the marriage a disaster waiting to happen, John Lithgow digs deep enough into the brow-beaten Edward's character to make us see that there is more than a little justification in Alice's complaints about his emotional reticence. Lithgow nails all the little details of a man beaten down by years of repressed feelings of anger and inadequacy. His being imposingly tall adds to the sense of Edward as a small, rather ordinary man who needs another woman to give him the courage to finally break free.

While the other woman who animates Edward to finally break free of the dead-ended marriage is never seen, the son who comes out of this troubled marriage most bloodied is very much part of this painful drama. Ben Chaplin holds his own with the two older pros, capturing the frustration of an only child being entangled in the war between two people he loves -- and, sadly, carrying their baggage into his own relationships.

Director Daniel Sullivan gracefully and with impeccable pacing orchestrates the pas de trois. The realistic elements of John Lee Beatty's set are more spare than his usually detailed interiors which works well with the abstract treescape behind the living room's scrim wall -- its intertwined branches an apt metaphor for the gnarled relationship.

The semi-abstract set notwithstanding, this is an old-fashioned, well-made play. A familiar story given fresh vitality by its fine cast.

The Retreat from Moscow
Written by William Nicholson
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Cast: Eileen Atkins, John Lithgow, Ben Chaplin
Set Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Jane Greenwood
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Original Music & Sound Design: John Gramada
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, includes one intermission
Booth, 222 W. 45th St, (Broadway/8th Av), 239 - 6200
Tue - Sat at 8pm; Wed & Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm -- $60-$80
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on October 29th performance

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