AISLE SAY Twin Cities


by William Nicholson
Directed by Jon Cranney
With Steven D'Ambrose, Joseph Papke and Barbara Kingsley
Park Square Theatre / 20 West Seventh Place, St. Paul
(651) 291-7005
October 27-November 20, 2004

Reviewed by Roxanne Sadovsky and David Erickson



The best part about The Retreat from Moscow was watching the other couples in the audience.

Things appeared fairly tense during intermission where groups and couples stood in circles penetrated by awkward silences, sloshing their coffee in attempts to avoid eye contact. And who could blame them? By then, Act One had already milked all the melodrama it could get from its forlorn family trio (with a little help from overworked violins and the minimal but dreary stage set) and we were still left wondering how this horrific dysfunctional family was going to right itself in Act Two. When the play ended, we couldn't help but eavesdrop on the fleeing couples, particularly the elder one we followed down 7th who were arguing about the overall "message" of the play. Admittedly, we too, discussed the show all the way home, both of us maintaining our cool.

"We're not like them, right?" I asked David, after we got on 94 and bumped into unexpected traffic, which he wasn't happy about. "I mean, we communicate, right?" Like the play's leading couple, Edward (Steven D'Ambrose) and Alice (Barbara Kingsley, we tend to be a couple that defers to certain roles in times of unspoken tension; David is laid-back, whereas I need to know the plan at all times. Like Alice, I want David to throw a party every time there is good news, so when we fight, it's usually about my need for reassurance, and his consequent need for me to trust that he is feeling something under that thick skin of his. Things come to a head when I get on him (in Moscow, since set in Britain, the expression is "go for him") for not saying what he wants or expressing his-god forbid-feelings. The part I don't get is that even if David isn't feeling or wanting anything at all, I experience his silence as passive sulking and brooding. In all fairness, I have to give the play credit for keeping young lovebirds like us on our toes. "I'm not bossy, am I? You're not going to just up and leave because I am too forthright are you? I mean, that would be news to me if you did. Just like it was to Alice."

Thankfully, David, unlike Edward, has a spine. Edward, on the other hand, epitomizes passive aggressive, which would make him popular in Minnesota. On the surface it looks like not much is going on, but inside he is miserable and can't wait to leave his marriage. But hey, it only takes 20 years for him to leave. In any case, Edward's silent brooding is lost to god-loving, energy vampire, Ma Alice, who is so absorbed in doing the right thing and keeping up with appearances that she fails to see reality, which made her annoying both as a character and actress. I don't know whether to blame Nicholson, Cranney, or Kingsley for this one; clearly she is a celebrated actress (as is D'Ambrose, her true life husband), but even with the burden of having her entire life disrupted with no forewarning, she could've toned it down a bit.

I know it sounds unfair, but her mania (as evidenced by the impulse purchase of a new dog, "Edward," who she teaches to heel, "stay" and "play dead") is cute, but totally over the top. Unless that was the point, I felt almost as annoyed by her as did Edward. Not that I am not sympathetic to victims of a nervous breakdown, but after a while, she was hard to take. "Get over it woman!" comes to mind by the time Act Two is only half over, which is really a shame since she really and truly loved her husband. Unfortunately, instead of exploring the profound love and earning herself both empathy and attention from the audience, she took the quick fix by throwing temper tantrums repeatedly.

Then again, "getting over it" would mean no more play. The biggest mystery to me about Moscow is why the story couldn't just stay with the relationship. Flashbacks? Depth? Instead of plunging further into the dysfunction, the story "retreated" into the insignificant supporting characters, who lent next to nothing to the story; like the marriage, everything else was kept on the surface. Ultimately, there was never a climax. A lot of build-up, yes, but 0 climax. Soap opera city.

Even though there are several things wrong with Moscow, both the script itself (beginning with the tenuous metaphor-namesake that refers to Napolean's retreat from Moscow following a failed conquest that left them cold, starving, and empty handed) and the production (rushed and melodramatic musical cues, lighting without a cause),  I was never bored. Like The Young + The Restless, the story wended in and out of the same drama, stretching one ugly apathetic scene after the next. Plus, some of the lines were hilarious, as were the actors who said them. So, what's not to enjoy about being sucked into an entertaining snippet about a family drama that you know will never end? It's really no different than noticing some of the people in your extended family over the holidays.

Though said "drama" revolves around the "dying marriage" of a suburban London couple, their twenty-something son, Jamie (Joseph Papke) adds a shade of gray to the dynamic (as opposed to a splash of color). Jamie lives all alone in a London flat and his primary job is to serves as the mediator between his parents as the marriage goes down. Because Jamie is such a flat and selfless character, it is hard to comment on his acting ability since these characteristics unfortunately represent a majority of contemporary young men. Even so, these young men undoubtedly have more to them that meets the eye, which we really want to see in Jamie. Alas, we don't.

This is where the kvetching begins. Not only is the story loaded with way too many devices, but it takes a difficult and all too common issue and doesn't stop there; in order to keep us good and satisfied, a dozen other issues are crammed into the mix. Regardless, I like the Park Square Theatre so much that it is well worth the journey to St. Paul. Knowing the show will always be full of melodrama means that the people-watching will always be superb, enough to make me a loyal customer. Hon?

David (Hon):

I thought the performances were brilliant and well nuanced, the characters changing convincingly in varied shades throughout the featured crisis. Barbara Kingsley's Alice seemed a bit over the top at first, but she managed to counter the hysteria with moments of lucidity that revealed Alice to be more than just a whimpering castoff. Steven D'Ambrose as Edward came quiet as a ghost through the back door at the start and turned into something resembling a man at the end. And Joseph Papke did an especially good job of playing his crucial role of simply being there between the two of them, caught like good sons and daughters can be, having to please and appease two warring factions and only understanding that at some time everyone loved everyone else. Still, I yet again wondered what all the Tony award-nominating (see Proof review at this same venue, elsewhere on this website) furor was about.

After all, it seemed like the story was nothing more than Ordinary People get divorced in the UK, with the roles reversed, except with the son surprisingly functional- but with no story of his own to tell (one of the major frustrations in this script). It seems there's a revival of exploring the mundane in the world of On Broadway dramas. Thank god for Fringe Fest- warts and all. I'm up for exploring the nooks and crannies of our everyday lives, but they play better in the pages of a book than on the stage. In the end, no one got really badly burned and life went on. I suspect they'll make a movie of this one, too. (Look for "Proof" with Gwenyth "yes, this is my real voice" Paltrow and Anthony "who's for dinner?" Hopkins, coming to a theatre near you. Yadda yadda yadda.)

The set was a bit lopsided and seemed uncertainly presented, somewhere between minimal and conceptual, in that awkward, "trying stuff out" way. Hopefully they'll scuttle some of the more self-conscious touches for the rest of the run. A clumsy jab at thematic lighting and some rather horrifying musical choices happily failed to take away from the performances of the players. Who drank quite a bit of tea. Special kudos to Joseph Papke for a nicely modulated accent, and for making the most of an underwritten and sometimes badly used (both son and "breaking the fourth wall" commentator?) part.

(No, sweetie, we're not like them. I would never "slosh" my coffee.)

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