There's a trend in modern playwriting to oversimplify some important historical event or revolutionary scientific theory, reduce said event/achievement into a multipurpose metaphor, and then mercilessly beat the poor innocent metaphor into a quivering, pulpy puddle of meaningless theatrical goo. The model works well enough for genuinely sophisticated authors like Michael Frayn (Copenhagen) and Tom Stoppard (Arcadia), but in the hands of lesser lights, it's a recipe for fresh-baked yawns.
William Nicholson's The Retreat From Moscow -- running at Circuit Playhouse through October16th -- may draw its inspiration from a disastrous military campaign that claimed the life of a half-million soldiers, but the play, which focuses on the crumbling relationship between a pair of suburban British empty-nesters, is only epic in its predictability. But fine performances by Irene Crist and Barclay Roberts and the playwright's unmerciful wit keeps this little play from becoming a victim of its grand pretensions.
Napoleon's escape from Russia was a grisly affair fraught with death, devastation, and -- in its darkest moments -- cannibalism. The poorly provisioned French, having narrowly escaped the terrible fires of Moscow, fled past earlier battlefields where rotting corpses still littered the ground. Bands of Cossacks terrorized the tail of the fleeing army, and those not strong enough to press on were left to die. There's a famous story about a prostitute following the army, who, as the horses staggered and fell dead, nursed her infant on equine blood. When she reached a swollen river, she held the bundled, blood-nourished baby over her head and successfully forded the icy flood, where so many French soldiers and horses were swept away. By comparing this epic horror to the tale of a couple who've simply grown bored with one another highlights a devastating mania affecting the modern middle class: a belief that all human suffering is somehow relative and comparable.
Edward (played by Roberts) is a history and religious-studies professor who loves to put off household chores and vanish into his crossword puzzles. Alice (played by Crist) is a poet and poetry enthusiast whose sometimes embarrassing need to be seen by her husband and defined by their relationship drives Edward further and further away. He secretly begins an affair and suddenly leaves the unstable Alice perched somewhere between murder and suicide.
The newly blissful Edward and the despondent Alice are unable to communicate with one another, so they turn their son Jamie, a good-natured schlub with no luck in love, into their long-suffering messenger. In this thankless role, Tristan Shields effectively whispers and shuffles and muddles through, begging his crazy mother to be strong and carry on so that her son can know that even life's coldest dish might be endured. Shields' closing poem -- no fault of the actor -- is as hard to weather as a Russian winter.
Although the playwright's metaphor is vulgar, and he relies too heavily on traditional gender models and the well-worn words of famous poets, Nicholson knows how to tell a story using only the essentials of action and language. At his best Nicholson's lean prose calls to mind authors like David Mamet and Harold Pinter. Unlike Mamet and Pinter, Nicholson has no use for revelation or surprise and prefers to fish for aphorisms and wax profound. Director Jerry Chipman's austere staging meshes well with Nicholson's mostly to-the-point dialogue, and the anti-chemistry between Roberts and Crist reduces the temperature in the theater by at least 10 degrees.
Alice is a deeply fascinating, if thoroughly annoying creature, but even in Crist's capable hands, it's hard not to blame every injustice in the world on this one woman's infantile needs and her caustic assaults on peace and quiet. At Moscow's preview performance the audience grunted at her verbal assaults and openly rooted for the cowardly Edward, who -- Roberts' sympathetic, teddy-bear performance aside -- is nobody's hero. But this is Crist's show, and she carries it well, mining laughter from darkness, depression, and desperation.