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The Retributionists

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Retributionists
Adam Driver and Cristin Milioti
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Payback can be rough, but passion can be rougher. For the quartet of post-World War II Jewish dissidents in Daniel Goldfarb’s always-smoldering and sometimes-stumbling new play, The Retributionists, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons, the allure of settling the score with the Germans is nothing compared to the irresistible appeal of human power and sacrifice. And straight through to the final scene, you’ll be wondering whether vengeance or love is really the more destructive force these four wield.

It may sound shallow, but neither Goldfarb’s play nor this production, which has been directed by Leigh Silverman, downplays the horrors of the Holocaust just by examining them from an unusual angle. In fact, the force of the devastation wrought on the group’s friends and family is accentuated by the plan they concoct to take one German life for every Jew who died. By focusing on the pain of survival after the fact rather than during it, Goldfarb immerses you in the immense helplessness and hopelessness that pervaded the time, making everything seem just as much a matter of life and death as escaping the gas chambers. The romances, which interlock as much with each other as they do with the ultimate goal, only anchor their desire for revenge within a world where the height of personal achievement is often seen very differently.

So Goldfarb wastes and trivializes nothing by looking at how one couple in Paris, Anika (Margarita Levieva) and Jascha (Adam Rothenberg), and one couple in Germany, Dinchka (Cristin Milioti) and Dov (Adam Driver), prosecute their tasks very differently. Dov is the ringleader, carting with him on the train two canisters containing enough cyanide to taint huge swaths of the German water supply (this is Plan A). Anika is his fiercest operative, charged with safeguarding other aspects of the scheme on far-removed soil (and setting up Plan B, should it be required). Jascha and Dinchka are accomplices, ready to serve as needed (and Jascha is expected to take his loyalty very far), but bound by their love for their partners. But Anika and Dov aren’t exactly strangers themselves.

The politics and the eroticism alternate in the first act much as the scenes set in Paris and Germany do. Goldfarb has a lot of ground to cover, and wastes little time in putting all his ideas on the table. If the first few scenes feel somewhat burdened by excessive exposition, the payoffs in the second act are ripe: When one plan fails, another is implemented, and the unions that once seemed so certain reconfigure time and time again. Silverman has directed with a sharp eye for pacing and a sharper ear for irony that elicits the maximum sexual and psychological suspense from almost every scene. (She’s defeated only by Goldfarb’s one extraneous scene, a flashback to the war that restates a lot of information from elsewhere, but doesn’t say a lot that’s new.) Even Derek McLane’s set contributes, seamlessly transforming from a shabby hotel room into an elegant train car and, eventually, the bread-packed bakery where the future of Germany may be decided.

The Retributionists
Adam Rothenberg and Margarita Levieva
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Goldfarb falters most noticeably in the weightier, more message laden sections of his dialogue; the characters’ single-minded determination makes for a lot of resonant-voiced but hollow-sounding proclamations that keep the actors from injecting it with all the portentous and pulse-racing color it needs. The most natural is Milioti (much better here than as a Fran Drescher-esque Syrian teen earlier this season in Lincoln Center Theater’s Stunning), who displays a sensitive understanding of unrequited adoration that plants Dinchka as the story’s unlikely tragic center. Rothenberg’s got the aroused-to-obedience aspect of Jascha down pat, but conveys little of the character's crushing responsibility as a Jew who can pass as an Aryan. And though Levieva and Driver are excellent in navigating the power plays that define their relationship to each other and to their cause, both read as angry symbols of unrest rather than idealistic warriors on the frontlines of an unwinnable battle. Hamilton Clancy, Lusia Strus, and Rebecca Henderson, however, deliver excellent if brief turns as bakery workers who can’t see or smell the danger baking just beneath their noses.

It’s that kind of obliviousness, to concerns both globe-spanning and heart-intimate, that fuels The Retributionists and keeps its mysteries engaging, if sometimes only superficially so. This play likely won’t be remembered as a juicy tribute to a maddening period of modern history - Goldfarb loosely based the play’s events (cyanide, bread, and all) on the post-war activities of the Lithuanian poet, Abba Kovner (represented here by Dov), and the organization he founded called Nakam (“Jewish Blood Will Be Revenged”). But as a reminder to never forget how global and interpersonal maneuvering are often one and the same, this is hard to beat as a late-summer stage page-turner.


The Retributionists
Through September 22
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral