Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Retributionists


By Daniel Goldfarb. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Plawrights Horizons. (CLOSED)

Critics can't help but compare (at least in passing) Daniel Goldfarb's tale of four star-crossed Jews plotting revenge against the Germans, based on a true story, to Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Most critics find the former to be melodramatic and laughable rather than insightful. Leigh Silverman gets mixed reviews for her directing, but most critics agree that the play is staged nicely, aided by Derek McLane's set. On the acting front, Margarita Levieva as Anika gets the harshest reviews for what critics call a wooden performance.

Talkin' Broadway B+
(Matthew Murray) The politics and the eroticism alternate in the first act much as the scenes set in Paris and Germany do. Goldfarb has a lot of ground to cover, and wastes little time in putting all his ideas on the table. If the first few scenes feel somewhat burdened by excessive exposition, the payoffs in the second act are ripe: When one plan fails, another is implemented, and the unions that once seemed so certain reconfigure time and time again. Silverman has directed with a sharp eye for pacing and a sharper ear for irony that elicits the maximum sexual and psychological suspense from almost every scene. (She’s defeated only by Goldfarb’s one extraneous scene, a flashback to the war that restates a lot of information from elsewhere, but doesn’t say a lot that’s new.) Even Derek McLane’s set contributes, seamlessly transforming from a shabby hotel room into an elegant train car and, eventually, the bread-packed bakery where the future of Germany may be decided. Goldfarb falters most noticeably in the weightier, more message laden sections of his dialogue; the characters’ single-minded determination makes for a lot of resonant-voiced but hollow-sounding proclamations that keep the actors from injecting it with all the portentous and pulse-racing color it needs. The most natural is Milioti (much better here than as a Fran Drescher-esque Syrian teen earlier this season in Lincoln Center Theater’s Stunning), who displays a sensitive understanding of unrequited adoration that plants Dinchka as the story’s unlikely tragic center.

CurtainUp B+
(Elyse Sommer) As promised by the advance press notices, The Retributionists is a romantic thriller, if at times leaning a bit too heavily towards soap opera. Given the limitations of a live theater piece, don't expect the kind of sturm and drang action of a film. The play's focus is on the conflicts and romances among the play's leader Dov (Adam Driver), Anika (Margarita Levieva) and Dinchka (Cristin Milioti), the two young women who became his lovers and followers during their harsh years in the forest, and the Aryan-looking Jascha (Adam Rothenberg). That said, this is a remarkably well- staged, extremely fluid production, with scenic designer Derek McLane transporting us without a lot of prop moving fuss to a Paris hotel room, a railroad train, a German bakery and, briefly, as well as to the forest where the foursome first bonded into a complicated family of sorts. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting and Tom Kitt's incidental music enhance the unsettled post-war aura. Director Leigh Silverman hand is most noticable in the way she spotlights the doors to Arika's Paris hotel rom, the train, and the bakery to perhaps symbolize their opening the way to both danger and possibility, beginnings and endings. Goldfab's script has enough little details to make the human behavior patterns and culture that developed during this foursome's years in the woods believable. The effect of the overlapping love relationships on the outcome of the thriller angle— the revenge plan, or to be specific, Plan A and Plan B — has enough surprises to hold our attention even though this hardly a gasp-inducing, finger clenching action piece.

TheaterMania B-
(Barbara and Scott Siegel) Inspired by a true story that occurred in Nuremberg, Germany in 1946 when 1,900 German prisoners of war were poisoned by arsenic-laced bread, playwright Daniel Goldfarb has spun an intriguing revenge fantasy in The Retributionists, now at Playwrights Horizons. Nonetheless, the play feels as if it needed another draft before going into production. There are great scenes, wonderful moments, and fascinating and breathtaking moral complexities that suddenly flash and then get mired in mediocre melodrama.

Time Out New York C-
(Adam Feldman) Goldfarb’s dramatic machinery is solidly built, and features interesting shifts in power among the play’s central quartet of Holocaust survivors. His language, however, moves distractingly between sepia stiffness (“You’ve always manipulated me so”) and modern lassitude (“I’m scared shitless”); and although Leigh Silverman’s staging is handsome, she elicits widely varying performances from the cast. Adam Driver and Cristin Milioti, two young actors to watch, do very fine work in demanding parts. But Margarita Levieva, in the pivotal role of Anika, gives a blank, inadequate performance—sometimes forcing the intense Adam Rothenberg into frantic spurts of compensatory acting. (He’s like a squash player returning his own shots at the wall.) Anika is meant to drive the story; Levieva never gets it out of neutral.

Lighting and Sound America C-
(David Barbour) The production's designers have conspired to give the play a voluptuous, film-noir sheen. Most of the action takes place in the train car and hotel room, both conjured up by Derek McLane with ease, using a few modular scenic pieces linked by a common door. The designer's skill at using a few telling details to create a strong sense of place has proved especially useful here. And, when the action moves to that bakery in Nuremburg, that stage is opened up to create yet another distinctively different location. Most of these locations are set against a basic set-up in which rows of black street lights run upstage to downstage, creating a kind of shadowy, back-alley look. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting endows the action with the requisite noir glamour; the hotel scenes in particular have a lovely sepia-toned quality. The forest flashback scene glitters with moonlight. Susan Hilferty's costumes include some beautifully tailored men's suits; her costumes for Dinchka are especially revealing of changes that characters life at three different points in the narrative. (I'd love to know why Anika is always barefoot, however.) Jill B. C DuBoff's sound design provides solid reinforcement for Tom Kitt's attractively melancholic piano-strings melodies; she also comes up with some extremely realistic train-station sounds. For all of this good work, however, The Retributionists remains one of those how-did-it-ever-get-on bafflers. Goldfarb's characters learn that the road to hell is paved with good intentions -- words he might well take to heart.

The Village Voice D+
(Michael Feingold) Some grudging praise should be offered to Daniel Goldfarb, for writing The Retributionists, and to Playwrights Horizons for producing it: A young writer willing to tackle a big, somber historical subject is always a sign of hope. Regrettably, the results here don't justify the praise being any more than grudging. Goldfarb's characters—four young Polish Jews who have survived extermination by escaping to the forest—scheme in 1946 to implement their personal revenge for the Nazi death camps by slaughtering an equivalent number of postwar Germans. To say that Goldfarb doesn't understand what he's talking about might itself be too generous: His people, their circumstances, their various pasts, and the chaotic postwar world around them are all so sketchily conveyed that I literally have no idea what he does or doesn't understand.

The New Yorker D
(Hilton Als) In the perhaps too orderly world of Daniel Goldfarb’s imagination, interesting things can happen, but not when the author’s in control. A literary sprinter by nature—his first acts have an almost staccato rhythm, as the absurdities pile up—Goldfarb sags when he has to go the distance. It’s as if some sense of duty were compelling him to pump his plays up, to push them through second acts and beyond the bounds of their natural, modest lives. This is a drag not only for the audience but for his characters as well. Too often, the thirty-six-year-old Goldfarb confuses the theatre with the lecture hall. This didacticism makes his new play, “The Retributionists” (at Playwrights Horizons), feel both empty and bloated; and it ends up trivializing what would have been a riveting story, trapping the actors in a narrative that doesn’t encourage freedom, artistic or otherwise.

Variety D
(David Rooney) Derek McLane's stylish, minimal sets, Peter Kaczorowski's noir-tinged lighting and Tom Kitt's fretful interstitial music combine to evoke a 1940s movie-ish atmosphere, but Silverman's direction is entirely without tension. However, the writing is mostly at fault, with dialogue that's often too contemporary ("He kills me!") and sometimes risibly melodramatic ("I want to get you pregnant on this train. This train heading into Germany. This train whose final destination is an enormous gas chamber.") All credibility is shot by the time we get to the bakery scene, in which the tone lurches into comedy with Lusia Strus and Rebecca Henderson as German workers who appear to have wandered in from a "Laverne and Shirley" rerun. But even without such head-scratching moments, this unconvincing play makes it hard to buy any of these phony characters as the impassioned would-be avengers of an attempted genocide.

Associated Press D-
(Michael Kuchwara) The dramatics are clunky — whether they are dealing with the personal lives of these four main characters or their convoluted plans to poison those German soldiers. Chronologically, the play is jagged, jumping around in time (including flashbacks) to give theatergoers a sense of what brought these conspirators to these plot. Director Leigh Silverman, aided by Tom Kitt's ominous music, keeps things at a full boil but it's an awkward kind of agitation. Tension is all. It makes for exhausting, unsatisfying theater.

The New York Times D-
(Charles Isherwood) Mr. Goldfarb seems to sense that this kernel of historical material will not suffice for a stageworthy evening. To supplement the story of the killer bread he supplies two overlapping romantic triangles. Unfortunately even this extra dose of yeast does not do much to improve the dramatic recipe of “The Retributionists.” As both a historical inquiry into the ethics of the “eye for an eye” brand of justice and a romantic melodrama, the play is a boring bust... formulaic soap opera dialogue fills far too much of Mr. Goldfarb’s play, which has been directed with minimal fuss but little apparent conviction by Leigh Silverman. “I can’t get you out of my system, Anika,” Jascha says. “I still love you.” In between the romantic tussling the characters do manage to engage in a few debates about the morality of Dov’s murderous plan. But these do not plumb any great philosophical depths and are quickly dispatched, so the heavy-breathing exchanges about who really loves whom can continue.

On Off Broadway F+
(Matt Windman) Unfortunately, Goldfarb's spends so much time dissecting the emotional love triangle among the characters that he turns what could have been an exciting, philosophic thriller into a dragging, overly complicated soap opera. The flow of the action is also interrupted by a flashback at the top of Act Two and his very awkward use of language. Director Leigh Silverman made matters worse by staging the play so slowly and using too many pauses. As a result, the production lacks the necessary momentum to carry the plot forward convincingly. Her very young cast displays a fiery amount of passion and raw sexuality, but their performances remain more melodramatic than truly convincing.

New York Post F-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Levieva, in particular, is downright unbelievable as the cunning, headstrong Anika. (She's much better in contemporary roles, as those who caught her in "Adventureland" can attest.) Granted, Anika is saddled with wince-inducing lines. "The world continues to disappoint me, Jascha," she moans. "The world continues to be unfair." This twaddle would defeat Meryl Streep, and Levieva, sounding like a petulant emo kid with posters of Theodor Herzl in her bedroom, doesn't stand a chance.

The Daily News F-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) In the press notes, the play is called "a romantic thriller." But between a B-movie script by Daniel Goldfarb ("Modern Orthodox"), tone-deaf direction by Leigh Silverman and uniformly overheated performances, it has all the tension and believability of Broadway's spy spoof "The 39 Steps." That comparison isn't made just willy-nilly. The shows echo each other in a variety of ways - the espionage plots, a scheming femme fatale, a scene on a speeding train, spooky music (Tom Kitt handles the chore here), right down to a secret agent with missing fingers.

Talkin' Broadway B+ 11; CurtainUp B+ 11; TheaterMania B- 9; TONY C- 6; Lighting & Sound America C- 6; Village Voice D+ 5; The New Yorker D 4; Variety D 4; AP D- 3; The New York Times D- 3; On Off Broadway F+ 2; New York Post F- 0; The Daily News F- 0; TOTAL: 64/13 = 4.92 (D+)

1 comment:

Aaron Riccio said...

Thankfully, "Aftermath" opens tonight, which means that hopefully the discussion can soon turn to something good and allow us to forget "The Retributionists" ever existed.

(Man, and I thought that "The Singing Forest" was badly constructed....)