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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
There's also a subgenre of stories that focus on those who not only fought to survive, but were driven to avenge the unspeakable actions committed against their fellow Jews. Daniel Goldfarb's new play, The Retributionists, has its genesis in the true story of a group of Holocaust survivors led by a Lithuanian Jewish poet, Abba Kovner, whose eye-for-an-eye revenge plots (kill a German for every Jew the Germans killed) took the form of an attempt to contaminate the German water supply with arsenic and when that fail, to concoct a scheme for poisoning loaves of bread served to former Nazi guards in an American prison.
While The Retributionist may bring to mind the recently released Quentin Tarantino Jewish revenge plot film Inglourious Basterds to mind, it's a much more ruminative type of play without the violence of either the Tarantino film or Edward Zwick's Defiance about the heroic Bielski brothes. Not that Goldfarb's four main characters didn't do violent things during their days as freedom fighters. It's that violence that has left them emotionally damaged, with a driving need for vengeance that stands in the way of their chances of moving on to normal lives.
While Goldfarb doesn't shy away from the fact that his characters are essentially terrorists, he makes it clear that these are young men and women who lost not only their families but their youth and whose toughness is not inborn but nurtured by devastating circumstances. In short, we have an author who, like a parent who loves a child unconditionally, sympathizes with his fictional children (this is a work of imagination, with the actual water and bread poisoning business strictly a plot building block) and wants to rescue them from the rage that may end up destroying them.
Director Leigh Silverman hand is most noticable in the way she spotlights the doors to Arika's Paris hotel rom, the train, and the bakery to perhaps symbolize their opening the way to both danger and possibility, beginnings and endings. Goldfab's script has enough little details to make the human behavior patterns and culture that developed during this foursome's years in the woods believable. The effect of the overlapping love relationships on the outcome of the thriller angle— the revenge plan, or to be specific, Plan A and Plan B — has enough surprises to hold our attention even though this hardly a gasp-inducing, finger clenching action piece.
All four of the retributionists differ considerably in their motivation for and dedication to the Never-Again revenge plan, this could easily be a case of each character being an archetype: Dov as the charismatic leader. . . Arika as the not to be swayed firebrand disciple. . . Jascha as a burnt out warrior more eager for love than another battle. . . Dinchka, the gentle conscience of the group, who recognizes the incongruity of Jews as killers. Margarita Levieva as the manipulative, driven Arika and Adam Driver as the basically weak leader and sexual predator have the particularly difficult task of being unsympathetic and yet ultimately pitiful. Cristin Milioti touches our heartstrings most powerfully as the sensitive Dinchka who understands the corrosiveness of an ongoing pattern of vengeance against Arika's single-minded commitment to "The Plan." Adam Rothenbuerg hunky good looks get him into Arika's bed but don't insure him against becoming the odd man out in this tangled relationship game.
As the various one-on-one scenes round out the characterizations enough to avoid the stereotype trap, so there are enough surprisesvia the revealed intricacies pertaining to the execution of Plan A and/or Plan B to hold our attention. Plan A calls for Dov to contaminate the German water supply. Plan B has the Gentile-looking Jascha infiltrate a German bakery in order to put poison in enough bread to kill thousands of Germans.
The three German characters are not big name Nazis such as the ones tried at Nuremberg, but a baker (Hamilton Clancy) and two women working for him (Lusia Strus and Rebecca Henderson). Their unrepentant anti-Semitism brings in the much discussed issue of ordinary Germans' guilt. Besides coming closest to being a somewhat melodramatic nailbiter, the bakery scene leads to the conclusion of both the revenge plot and the romantic entanglements. I'd be a spoiler to say more, than that the outcome is true to the particulars of the play's origins even if still leaving it to the author to work out how the personal stories will play out.
The Retributionists doesnt escape the risks of trafficking in this kind of earnest exploration of Jewish moral issues in the guise of a romantic adventure story. Though thoughtfully written, there are some overcooked purplish passages. Still, Goldfarb rounds out his resume of well-received Jewish themed plays like Adam Baum and the Jew Movie and Modern Orthodox with this generally intriguing group portrait of young survivors who suffered through a horrendous war without losing their independence but who must navigate their way through their lives as free men and women.