You know there's trouble brewing when you get this bit of conversation between husband and wife:
"How was your day?"
"I wish you wouldn't talk to me like that."
The Retreat from Moscow
GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables
Written by William Nicholson. Directed by Joseph Adler. With David Kwiat, Lisa Morgan, and Andrio Chavarro. Through February 27. 305-445-1119.
This snippy exchange in The Retreat from Moscow acts as prologue to the pathetic end of Edward and Alice's marriage, a turn of events that surprises all concerned, including their adult son Jamie. That is the essence of William Nicholson's play, which already has enjoyed considerable success on Broadway and London's West End, and is now having its local premiere in a solid GableStage production directed by Joseph Adler. The action, in case you are wondering, does not take place in early 19th-century Russia but rather in early 21st-century England, somewhere not far from London but beyond Tunbridge Wells. It is a middle-class affair, nicely observed in this staging, down to the weak tea brewed with teabags instead of loose leaves. The script, though overstuffed with poetic quotations, is free of class conflicts, cosmic significance, or any further pretensions. It actually rings true for the most part, and it is as sad as a good episode of One Life to Live during sweeps week, or more to the point, any of the well-made British plays the ladies who lunch might have taken in for a weekday matinee 50 years ago. Soap operas tend to sound more serious with a British accent, and Nicholson's play is soaked in classy suds. So what's with the title?
Edward is a history teacher. Early in the first scene he reads aloud a soldier's heartbreaking account of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, an affecting and bloody end to a campaign -- a life, really -- of folly. The strong left the weak behind to die in the snow, coolly and probably correctly surmising that to stay and help would only add to the body count. And so, The Retreat from Moscow suggests, with Edward and Alice's marriage of nearly 33 years. It turns out that Edward has decided to move on, to leave the weaker, wounded Alice to fend for herself. The symbolism is a tad heavy-handed. It does feel awkward, even contrived, that it is Alice who points out the analogies to Napoleon's historic debacle. Edward, after all, is the one reading the tale; history is his field. Strange that Alice would pick out this detail she finds irritating in her husband and fix on it repeatedly as a convenient illustration of the unraveling mess of her life. She does have a lot of other literary references at the ready, and she spouts them promiscuously to her husband and son. Still, it is a terrific title.
Nicholson's other titles, for the record, so far have included another legit soaper, Shadowlands, which was made into a film starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger; as well as original motion pictures such as the smart teen fave First Knight and the Oscar-winning Gladiator. By the playwright's own account, The Retreat from Moscow may be his most personal work, inspired in part by memories of his own parents' divorce. "Why take fragments of lived experience and rearrange them in some new pattern?" he asks in his 2004 notes to the play. "Why tell stories at all? For a while I supposed the urge came from a need to tidy up the mess of life, to impose meaning on the meaningless." In Moscow Nicholson is driven by a greater drive: "I am trying, clumsily, to reach the truth of my life. This is hard. Like everyone else, I tell lies all the time.... But more and more, I write to strip away these lies and say: Look, this is how it really was. That's all. No moral. No lesson. No consolation." That is the intimate spectacle now onstage in Coral Gables.
It is a small play. The emotional triangle is simple: a strong woman, frustrated by difficulties that eventually will lead to the end of everything she thought she could take for granted; a husband who is not so much passive-aggressive as just plain passive, and perhaps on his way to happiness at last; and a son who has his own complaints of being unlucky in love, though nothing that matters to the plot at hand. The short and jagged, cinematic scenes are like little shards of life reflected in a broken fun-house mirror, no less valid for being the epitome of a cliché.
The abandoned wife is the last to know. Divorce is messy. Children will suffer when their parents break up. You never really know someone. We all have relationship issues. There are two sides to every breakup. Robert Frost is fun to quote. Nicholson for the most part knows how to deploy bromides ruthlessly, and Adler's fast direction rarely stops to let one realize the banality beneath the surface -- except when the writing is so shamelessly maudlin that the best course of action is simply to let the actors speak the lines and hope for the best. Not just the symbolism of Napoleon's famous retreat as insistently voiced with ersatz intellectual weight by Alice, but also Edward's tale of how he first met his wife (he got on the wrong train -- wouldn't you know that's the story of their lives), and poor Jamie's closing lines (which it would be no loss to cut) are all but unsavable by the craftiest of actors.
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The attractive cast is fine. David Kwiat has a beautiful voice that he pours generously into Edward's lines, creating an ultimately touching portrait of a man more used to lecturing than to feeling. Lisa Morgan's Alice, the only character allowed to hint at growth in the script, is a marvelous thundercloud of nervous energy with a dangerous edge and an amusing British lisp. As their son Jamie, Andrio Chavarro shows both promise and inexperience. He is poignant while sitting at the dining table watching his mother fall apart, but he also seems at sea while standing up doing nothing, and his stage demeanor announces the actor's -- not the character's -- discomfort. All three have discreet, vaguely untraceable British accents, though Chavarro's occasionally strays into colonial territory.
H. Paul Mazer's set is unimaginative but it works, making use of the Biltmore's problematic stage width by creating several distinct, naturalistic rooms separated only by Jeff Quinn's basic, effective lighting. Jen Howard's costumes are unflattering but not out of place. No one would claim that a history teacher in the sticks, his poetry-reading wife, and their bachelor son have to be stylish.
"The thing about unhappiness," Alice says in the depths of Act Two, "is that after a while it stops being interesting." There is unquestionably plenty of unhappiness on display in the very chatty scenes from a marriage that make up Nicholson's The Retreat from Moscow, and certainly Kwiat and Morgan do a lot to make us care. But it somehow, after a while, seems uninteresting. Alice has a point.