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Both Sides Now

An impartial observation of a marriage in tatters, brilliantly acted; a dubious classic, ignobly acted; and a new play that possibly can’t be acted.


God's Will: Atkins and Chaplin, righteous mother and earnest son in Moscow.  

For 33 years, Alice has been a loving wife to Edward, a history teacher. But she has also been a maddening nudge, her love a nagging, querulous disapproval, a steady push to turn him into her idea of him. Alice, devout and self-righteous, believes her views to be God’s truth. How Edward managed to put up with her is a mystery even to himself, but now that he has found love with another, his long endurance is at an end. He wants out. Their grown son, Jamie, is caught in the middle, cursed with seeing the situation from both sides: intellectually agreeing with his father but emotionally empathizing with his mother, who cannot accept her husband’s leaving her.

Edward has been reading out loud eyewitness accounts of the Napoleonic Army’s dreadful retreat from Moscow, where, among other horrors, the stronger abandoned, or even pushed, the weaker to certain death from the cold. Something like that is happening in the ripping of this marriage, which Alice compares to war, and whose threatened dissolution she perceives as a menace to mankind and a crime against God.

As in tragedy, both parties in William Nicholson’s The Retreat From Moscow have their right and their wrong, but the play is no less comic than sad, always thought through to the finest psychological perception, and expressed in the most eloquently tender or exquisitely wounding language. Everybody, including the innocent Jamie, hurts; yet there is something laughable as well as lacerating in all this inflicted or self-inflicted pain.

Daniel Sullivan has directed with his customary incisiveness and graceful attention to detail, but what supreme acting talent he had to work with: infinitely inventive, exceptionally nuanced, and insidiously compelling. This last applies especially to Eileen Atkins, who may just be the greatest—and certainly the most complex—actress in the English theater. The shadings she gets into her oral as well as physical language, the perfection of timing down to nanoseconds, and the scarcely bearable agony of her silences—if anyone thinks that acting is a minor art, let him see this and repent.

The wonder of it is that both John Lithgow’s Edward and Ben Chaplin’s Jamie hold their own in Atkins’s sublime company, with Lithgow the very image of exasperated decency and Chaplin the model of beleaguered patience. Only at the very end does the play lose its footing. Jamie’s concluding speech, replete with maudlin poeticisms and breast-beating, needlessly rehashes what James Joyce put more succinctly, “O, father forsaken, / Forgive your son!” It could easily be excised, to the author’s, the actor’s, and the spectators’ benefit. Yet it barely matters; abetted by John Lee Beatty’s astutely suggestive scenery, Jane Greenwood’s slyly pertinent costumes, and Brian MacDevitt’s compassionately supportive lighting, The Retreat From Moscow is a treat to New York courtesy of a London playwright.

Students of terrible acting and directing (from which much can be learned) should seek out the Public Theater’s The Two Noble Kinsmen, by John Fletcher with a hand (only a small one, one hopes) from William Shakespeare. Of interest as the last of Will—though one might have wished for his earlier retirement—this tragicomedy is seldom performed, and for good reason. Based on Chaucer’s tale, it concerns Palamon and Arcite, noble Theban knights and fond cousins, who fall in love in the same instant with Emilia and are therewith torn between fraternal devotion and mortal combat until one of them conveniently dies.

We start at the court of Athens, where the wedding of Duke Theseus and the Amazon queen Hippolyta (familiar from a much better play) is interrupted by the plea of three widowed queens that Theseus avenge the murder of their husbands by Creon, tyrant of Thebes. That two of the queens are played by men says less about the economics of casting than about the absurdities of Darko Tresnjak, the director who also casts a woman in drag as a doctor. Tresnjak and his designer, David P. Gordon, give us a triangular stage, with the audience on two sides of the triangle, and some of the action in shadow play behind the translucent hypotenuse. Onto this stage is rolled a triangular cage for the important prison scenes, the widely spaced bars forming a jungle gym for the captive Palamon and Arcite to perform their monkeyshines on.

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