The late Congressman Morris Udall once stood on the floor of the House during a debate on some important legislation. “I think that everything that can be said on this bill has been said,” he intoned, and then looked around sadly. “But not everyone has said it yet.” He was right, and debate went on for another two hours.
Mo Udall would have experienced a shock of recognition had he been able to attend The Retreat from Moscow, William Nicholson’s Tony-nominated play now running (through April 30) at Round House Theatre’s Bethesda facility. For seventy minutes, this is a tight little Chinese box puzzle of a play, dissecting the rapid-fire collapse of a doomed 33-year marriage with devastating insight and clarity.
Regrettably, though, the play is an hour and forty-five minutes long and – with the exception of one touching soliloquy – the remainder offers about as much drama as a filibuster on farm supports.
Alice (Carol May Jenkins) is a woman who lives her life by objectives, which she appears to achieve through hectoring. As the play opens, her objectives are to get her son Jamie (Tim Getman) to return to the practice of the Roman Catholic faith, and to get her long-suffering husband Edward (Rick Foucheux) to be more open about his emotional life. Alice is not a bad or mean-spirited person, but she is a sort of shark, who must move constantly or die. When the reforming spirit is on her, her family – Edward particularly – feels her predatory attentions keenly. Edward says she “goes after” him, and the description is apt.
Be careful what you go after, Alice. The things to know about Edward are that he’s English, and he’s a man. He has felt Alice’s reforming lash for thirty-three years, and has borne it stoically, but he has always experienced it as a harsh criticism of who he is. He has craved a marriage that would be a refuge – a cozy place, where he could do his crossword puzzles unbuffeted by the world’s storms. With Alice, who is one of the world’s storms, such a refuge is impossible.
Thus Edward finally accedes to Alice’s demand for emotional honesty, and tells her this: he’s in love with someone else. He’s been having an affair. He no longer wishes to be married to Alice. He’s leaving her.
All of this is done with great authenticity and tenderness, so that the dreadful impact of this terrible event on these quite ordinary people is apparent, and they stand naked before us. Alice is an exasperating woman, but the geyser of sadness and horror which erupts from her is real and palpable and profoundly moving. Jenkins and Foucheux play this scene beautifully, and Getman’s complimentary performance as the shocked son rounds things nicely.
And then – well, more of the same. Alice’s new objective becomes the impossible one of putting this shattered marriage back together again. Her histrionic techniques are at first tragic, and then farcical, and finally merely tedious. Edward finds different ways to say the same thing over and over again. Jamie is alternately sympathetic, outraged, defensive – whatever the appropriate emotional reaction is, he dutifully dredges it up.
I must say that Getman seemed to labor greatly during the Second Act. The fault was not entirely his: Jamie seemed largely a plot device to mediate between the two principals, who were of course not speaking to each other. Periodically he would give his mother – and us – some teasing revelation from his own life, but would quickly slam the door to follow-up questions. This is a dubious course of action to follow in real life, and a toxic one in drama.
Part of the problem with this play is that it is apparently rooted in autobiography. Autobiographical plays are generally a bad idea for three reasons. First, real life is seldom as satisfying as fiction. If it was, why would we have plays? Secondly, unless the playwright is also an astronaut or King of the Gypsies, it is likely that his life is too boring to be a play. Even the exciting parts are too boring to be a play. (On the other hand, could you ever imagine living a life like Hamlet’s?) Finally, where the parties are still living it is hard not to write without worrying about the play’s effect on the future of the relationship. Jamie’s rather embarrassing panegyric to his parents at the end of the play may have been written with that in mind.
Another part of the problem is that this production seems to have been done without Round House’s usual attention to detail. At one point Alice throws all the cutlery on the floor; Jamie restores it to the table without even wiping it, and later they eat with it. There is nothing to suggest England in the two room set; and later, when the play moves from Edward and Alice’s home to Jamie’s apartment, the only set piece that seems to have changed is the teakettle. Director James Edmondson, who got such good work out of his actors in Act One, must bear the responsibility for these odd and inexplicable lapses.
Well. I’ve said all I have to say on this subject, and so, learning from Mr. Nicholson’s mistakes and those of Mr. Udall’s colleagues, I’ll stop now.
The Retreat from Moscow opened April 5th and runs through April 30th.
at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway in downtown Bethesda.
Tickets: $40 – $45. Buy tickets here.