The Retreat From Moscow by William Nicholson. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Set Design by John Lee Beatty. Costume Design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting Design by Brian MacDevitt. Original Music and Sound Design by John Gromada. Cast: Eileen Atkins, John Lithgow, Ben Chaplin.
The best word to describe The Retreat from Moscow might well be "succinct." William Nicholson's new play at the Booth is succinctly written, succinctly (but superbly) acted, and succinctly designed. There's almost nothing about it that isn't concisely measured and well thought out, from the impact of a couple of well-placed laugh lines to the dispensing of an expected profundity or two.
But succinctness does not necessarily exciting drama make. Here, there are no earth-shaking revelations, no single moment that will cause you to bolt upright in your seat with a masterful revelation about human relationships that you've never been able to precisely articulate before. You'll far more likely find yourself nodding in agreement or smiling in recognition of Nicholson's points. Still, the writing and the direction (provided, succinctly of course, by Daniel Sullivan) are strong enough that, within the play's own boundaries, it can be considered both interesting and effective at deconstructing the elements from which any long-term relationship is built.
That relationship in this case is between Alice (Eileen Atkins) and Edward (John Lithgow), married to for nearly 34 years and beginning to discover that they are either growing apart or were never truly together at all. Edward is happy to preserve the status quo in their marriage as much as possible, while Alice will do anything to incite any kind of a full emotional response from him. She wants a "real marriage," and she'll try to get it any way she can, whether by starting arguments on flimsy pretexts or ruthlessly pursuing him at the college at which he teaches.
So it's not exactly a stunning revelation when Edward reveals that her actions have coerced (if not outright forced) him into another woman's arms. Given Edward's longtime plan to leave her and his ever-sedate manner, it hits Alice particularly hard. For her, his rejection registers as powerfully as if he had died suddenly; from Edward's perspective, he's broken free for the first time in decades.
In his writing, Nicholson often likens their situation to one in a history book Edward is reading: Napoleon's 1812 retreat from Moscow. As he and his troops backtracked through a devastating winter in a harsh and unforgiving country, the sick or wounded were not retrieved when they fell (or "fell") - were the stronger men required to behave this way in order to survive, or were they too cowardly to face more difficult challenges ahead?
Nicholson provides no clear-cut answers, but devotes the balance of the play to his exploration of the question and its impact on Alice and Edward's relationship. That relationship, as in any long-term one, is highly complex: Alice and Edward are inextricably linked and their own stylized emotional language, formed through decades of intimacy, is breaking down. They need a translator, so Nicholson provides one in the form of their son, Jamie (Ben Chaplin).
Jamie conveys messages not only between his parents, but intercedes on behalf of the audience to allow the multiple facets of his parents' difficulties to come to light naturally. As he's the only one capable of rationally assessing the situation, Jamie must act as the family's emotional center. Taking on his father's real-world perspective and his mother's poetic emotionalism, he can be whoever (or whatever) he needs to be at any given time.
Chaplin's Jamie is masterful and understated, a precise melding of Alice and Edward (or Atkins and Lithgow?), while remaining a complete person of his own. It's the most striking portrayal in the play, and though Jamie is perhaps the most difficult character, Chaplin makes it look easy. Lithgow is sometimes a bit stiff, but that works for the reserved Edward, and he paints all of his speeches, particularly his soul-searching speech at the end of the first act, with vivid colors. Atkins expertly finds the comedy in her role's tragedy and the tragedy in its comedy, and her expression of her turmoil is often almost heartbreaking. Her protestations about the end of their relationship meaning her death (perhaps by her own hand) are almost painfully believable.
Sullivan has done an excellent job with his actors, but provides them only middling support with the rest of the production he's assembled. John Lee Beatty's set is sparse, a few pieces of furniture and walls reminiscent of stained glass, depicting hundreds of tree branches all hopelessly tangled together. Brian MacDevitt's lighting and Jane Greenwood's costumes are always exactly what's required.
But that's The Retreat from Moscow for you - consistently and intelligently put together, but seldom more. Even one of Nicholson's most vital moments - Jamie acknowledging to his mother that, though he's grown, he still needs her to set examples for his future - is very successful, but doesn't make a unique impression. The image of a child giving back to the parents who have sacrificed so much for him is still powerful, but it has been (and will continue to be) handled more exhilaratingly elsewhere.