Late into The Retreat From Moscow, the excruciating-in-a-good-way end-of-marriage drama now at the Unicorn, my mind swirled with questions raised by William Nicholson's richly allusive script. In times of crisis, what do we owe each other? Which demonstrates true strength: enduring an irreparable marriage or smashing out of one? And is it possible to live happily after we've done the unforgivable?
This last question fits the play, of course. But that night it was also about me and my cell phone, which, despite being professionally sheathed and silenced at a couple of shows each week, found it within itself to ring deep into the show's grab-a-hanky climax.
Once the shushing stopped, I found my assholish self like Edward and Alice, the couple with the stale air between them at a loss. After a disaster like that, how can you soldier on?
Despite the title's sweep of history, The Retreat From Moscow is intimate, the story of British academics long married and out of things to say to each other, except for truths too painful to speak. After almost 34 years of low-key marriage, Edward (the superb Mark Robbins) announces to his son, Jamie (Nathan Darrow, finely weary), his intention to leave his wife, Alice, played with exquisite hurt by Merle Moores. Alice has long been vocal about wanting "a real marriage," one in which Edward is emotionally engaged. To get this, she frequently picks at him, even browbeating him in front of colleagues. Though it's clear that Edward's lack of interest in Alice has spurred her provocations, he uses her attacks as an excuse to take up with another woman.
The title comes from one of Nicholson's metaphorical conceits. Edward, a professor of history, is fascinated with the brutality and death that followed Napoleon's 1812 Russian defeat. Plodding home through a brutal winter, the weak were left to die. "When it's a matter of survival," Edward says, "people will do anything."
For Edward, abandoning Alice gives him a chance at new life. That we don't hate him for this is testament to Robbins' easy humanity. His Edward has almost convinced himself (and his son) that he's still a good guy.
As the scorned Alice, Moores is given wide range to dazzle, and she does, from an early comic monologue about how hard it is to get a printer repaired "People don't fix things, anymore. They throw them away" to her frequent recitations of favorite poems and her final scenes with the men in her life: tender with her son, even as she understands she is a burden to him, and furious with her husband to the point of near-madness.
To explain these two to each other (and to us), Nicholson gives us Jamie, the go-between son who empathizes with whichever parent happens to be near. Darrow's Jamie is an unsteady alloy of Robbins' and Moores' performances. He's a passive lump like his father, guilty that he wants freedom from his mother; but like mom, he's more than a little lost himself. Darrow's is detailed, attentive acting.
Occasionally, Nicholson's script is too fussed-over, with explanations freighting each of his metaphors. He doesn't just tell us about Napoleon's defeat; he links it explicitly to the marriage. Every detail bears weight, sometimes too much the broken printer, the cracks that fissure the walls of the living room. But this is hardly a problem under Garrett's direction; everything feels natural and lived-in, despite Nicholson's pedantic streak.
The Retreat From Moscow offers us a minor devastation. It's expertly acted and directed, cutting in its truths and sparing with its sympathies. Garret and company have captured nothing less than what a divorce actually feels like. All weekend long, it weighed on me like a cold I couldn't shake.
Nicholson sometimes tells us what to think, but I greatly prefer that to being told what to feel a key problem with Give 'em Hell Harry, the heap of hagiographic piffle enjoying a revival at the Kansas City Rep.
Samuel Gallu's silly script gives us a lovable, storytelling Harry who jaws at us from the Oval Office like we're squatting 'round the cracker barrel. But this crafty gabber has an agenda: his own greatness. He runs down the high points of his life like he's reading off his résumé, and the combination of folksy talk and rigged-up anecdotes is as disconcerting here as it is in A Face in the Crowd or on Fox News. Always, Gallu shirks the unpleasant in favor of the cornpone, devoting far more time to Truman's thoughts on lawn mowing than on Hiroshima. The show insists that the man never made a mistake, had a regret or faced a problem he couldn't fix with Missourah straight talk.
Still, Harry isn't without its pleasures. Starring Scrooge-for-life Gary Neal Johnson and directed by the rock-steady Larry Carpenter, it's impeccably staged and acted. Johnson's natural grit roughens up the mawkish passages, and his angry scenes ring with from-the-soil passion that makes today's Democrats sound like NPR pledge-drive hosts.
But the problems run deep. Harry dates back to the Ford administration, and though it allows us the satisfaction (as it did then) of shaking our heads at recent presidents who haven't measured up, the myth it sells is dangerous. By nodding along, we buy into the same idiotic conviction that has let George W. Bush feel as confident as a Pharaoh in his every mendacity: that a president any president at all might be infallible.