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A CurtainUp Review
The Retributionists

It's very cler to me. Clearer than anything I've ever thought in my life. They must be killed the way they killed—Dov, the leader of the Polish Jews who survived the holocaust of World War II in the forest and who, now that the war is over, feels that an eye-for-an-eye revenge is imperative for preventing this horrible chapter of history to repeat itself.

All this violence from us. I think--? I think it's wrong. Jews aren't terrorists—Dinchka, who wants to move on from the violence of her days with Dov and the other freedom fighters.

Before seeking revenge fist dig two graves..— Chinese Proverb
The Retributionists
Margarita Levieva and Adam Rothenberg (Photo: Joan Marcus )
The need to avenge unspeakable acts has seeded everything from individual and group acts of terrorism to full scale wars. The countless books and dramas about the Holocaust have seeded their own subgrenre about those who resisted concentration camp roundups; for example, the 2008 film Defiance which chronicled the story of four ordinary men transformed by war into heroes who established a whole forest community of freedom fighters.

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.

The Retributionists
Christin Milioti and Adam Rothenberg
(Photo: Joan Marcus )
As promised by the advance press notices, The Retributionists is a romantic thriller, if at times leaning a bit too heavily towards soap opera. Given the limitations of a live theater piece, don't expect the kind of sturm and drang action of a film. The play's focus is on the conflicts and romances among the play's leader Dov (Adam Driver), Anika (Margarita Levieva) and Dinchka (Cristin Milioti), the two young women who became his lovers and followers during their harsh years in the forest, and the Aryan-looking Jascha (Adam Rothenberg). That said, this is a remarkably well- staged, extremely fluid production, with scenic designer Derek McLane transporting us without a lot of prop moving fuss to a Paris hotel room, a railroad train, a German bakery and, briefly, as well as to the forest where the foursome first bonded into a complicated family of sorts. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting and Tom Kitt's incidental music enhance the unsettled post-war aura.

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.

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The Retributionists
Playwright: Daniel Goldfarb
Director: Leigh Silverman
Cast: Adam Driver (Dov Kaplinsky), Margarita Levieva (Anika Stoller), Cristin Milioti (Dinchka Fried), Adam Rothenberg (Jascha Pinsker); also Hamilton Clancy (Gustav), Rebecca Henderson (Christine), Lusia Strus (Ute). Scenic design by Derek McLane
Costume design by Susan Hilferty
Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski
Sound design by Jill BC DuBoff
Original music by Tom Kitt
Stage Manager: Anna Garcia
Running Time: approximately 2 hours, including intermission
Playwrights Horizons' Mainstage Theater 416 West 42nd Street
From 8/21/09; opening 9/14/09; closing 9/27/09
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 9/13/09 press preview
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