Stage: Wednesday, May 11, 2005
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Gary Moody and Elizabeth Rothan star in Circle Theatre’s production of ‘The Retreat from Moscow.’
The Retreat From Moscow
Thru May 21 at Circle Theatre, 230 W 4th St, FW.
817-877-3040.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Cold War

Circle Theatre stages a Southwest premiere that’s quietly — almost silently — unnerving.

By JIMMY FOWLER

As the days grow warmer and the city’s outdoor festival season cranks into high gear, the time is right to ... descend into a dark basement and sit quietly through a chatty two-hour-plus play that exactingly dissects the flaws and merits of a three decade-long marriage.
Anyone looking for a perverse alternative to spring frolicking will be engaged by Circle Theatre’s modestly designed, vigorously performed Southwest premiere of The Retreat From Moscow. Judging by last Saturday’s crowded matinée, people are indeed primed to reject the call of nature for something cerebral and, more than likely, conversation-stirring. Given the high percentage of over-45 married couples in attendance, you can bet that sides were taken, a few sore spots jabbed, and that some open-ended musings about monogamy prefaced by “What if ...?” and “Why not?” were resumed, if privately. It’s doubtful, though, that many truly revelatory or insightful sentiments were triggered by the play. To both its credit and its detriment, The Retreat From Moscow is too discreet for that.
An evening’s worth of deliberative, quippy adult chatter about relationships is what makes theater such a horrifying prospect for so many people; meanwhile, for those seeking refuge from the flea-brained chaos of much contemporary entertainment, a play like Retreat serves as a kind of battery recharger. Both camps are likely to associate more depth with British playwright-screenwriter William Nicholson’s script than it really contains. We’re just so unaccustomed to seeing the emotional lives of fiftysomethings treated with such serious empathy and in so much detail that the resulting shock can easily be mistaken for wisdom. The play’s examination of the fallout from an abruptly terminated marriage is generally soft-spoken and, when the emotion does come frothing out, it’s usually one-sided. A play as economical in structure and content as Nicholson’s can thus be hailed as mature and sophisticated when it is, in fact, rather uncooked. Circle Theatre’s cast of three, under the direction of T.J. Walsh, limns numerous little arcs of recognizable feeling without ever lighting a big fire with Nicholson’s text.
Plays about the spiky truths that lurk beneath the ideal of marital commitment used to be so common in the English-speaking theater that Edward Albee wrote a show called The Marriage Play. While The Retreat From Moscow contains downright Albeean archetypes, their fangs have either been filed down or removed altogether. Tea-sipping Edward (Gary Moody) is a gray-haired history professor who relishes crossword puzzles and eyewitness accounts of pivotal historical events. His approach to life might best be described as “go along to get along.” His bold wife Alice (Elizabeth Rothan) is a scholar of poetry and the kind of person who believes that to criticize is to improve. Her natural tendency to question, to challenge, and to confront would seem an excellent “yin” to the “yang” of Edward’s passivity, even to their 30 year-old son Jamie (Bill Sebastian). But during Jamie’s visit to help celebrate their anniversary, one of the recurrent arguments Alice instigates about Edward’s phlegmatic personality takes an unexpected turn. The husband announces he believes their marriage has been a mistake more or less from the beginning, that he loves another woman, and that he has already begun arrangements to leave the house he shares with Alice. Jamie, who finds himself sympathizing with both parents, is forced into the role of mediator as father departs and mother unravels.
Critics should avoid unnecessarily spoiling plot surprises and climaxes when reviewing a show, but there are none in The Retreat From Moscow — it plays more like a narrow, selectively chosen slice of domestic trauma than a broad, emblematic investigation of universal human dilemmas. The play’s ambitions (or lack thereof) are only as good or bad as audiences’ expectations. However, the playwright tallies both sides’ strikes fairly, draining the dramatic potential. Alice, for instance, probably shouldn’t have spent all those years angrily branding Edward “a coward” for his reticence, while he should have been honest from the start about his fears that the partnership was mismatched. Circle Theatre’s production works best when it personalizes the real terrors that middle-aged divorce instills in a person who has never seriously contemplated growing old without a mate. “What will happen to me when I’m old?!” weeps Alice in one of the show’s genuinely anguished moments. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Rothan is so captivating — indeed, she’s sometimes too vital, opinionated, and engaged with the vagaries of the world — that it’s difficult to really fear for her character’s uncertain future. Gary Moody as the deceptively reserved Edward is pitch-perfect and probably closer to this play’s heart of quiet melancholy than Rothan. Bill Sebastian as deeply ambivalent son Jamie gets the most difficult role of the three. He manages to be effective without shining much light into the mystery of the character, who becomes, as the play progresses, a distinct hybrid of his vastly different parents. Jamie’s solitude — he lives alone in a tiny flat and can’t seem to decide whether he wants to marry — embodies both what his mother fears most and his father yearns for: a life of “small pleasures.” Coincidentally or not, those are the only kind available in this humble comic drama. l





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