New York Magazine, November 3, 2003
Both Sides Now
An impartial observation of a marriage in tatters, brilliantly acted; a dubious classic, ignobly acted; and a new play that possibly can't be acted.
by John Simon
Edward has been reading out loud eyewitness accounts of the Napoleonic Army's dreadful retreat from Moscow, where, among other horrors, the stronger abandoned, or even pushed, the weaker to certain death from the cold. Something like that is happening in the ripping of this marriage, which Alice compares to war, and whose threatened dissolution she perceives as a menace to mankind and a crime against God.
As in tragedy, both parties in William Nicholson's The Retreat from Moscow have their right and their wrong, but the play is no less comic than sad, always thought through to the finest psychological perception, and expressed in the most eloquently tender or exquisitely wounding language. Everybody, including the innocent Jamie, hurts; yet there is something laughable as well as lacerating in all this inflicted or self-inflicted pain.
Daniel Sullivan has directed with his customary incisiveness and graceful attention to detail, but what supreme acting talent he had to work with: infinitely inventive, exceptionally nuanced, and insidiously compelling. This last applies especially to Eileen Atkins, who may just be the greatestand certainly the most complexactress in the English theater. The shadings she gets into her oral as well as physical language, the perfection of timing down to nanosections, and the scarcely bearable agony of her silencesif anyone thinks that acting is a minor art, let him see this and repent.
The wonder of it is that both John Lithgow's Edward and Ben Chaplin's Jamie hold their own in Atkins's sublime company, with Lithgow the very image of exasperated decency and Chaplin the model of beleaguered patience. Only at the very end does the play lose its footing. Jamie's concluding speech, replete with maudlin poeticisms and breast-beating, needlessly rehashes what James Joyce put more succinctly, "O, father forsaken, / Forgive your son!" It could easily be excised, to the author's, the actor's, and the spectators' benefit. Yet it barely matters; abetted by John Lee Beatty's astutely suggestive scenery, Jane Greenwood's slyly pertinent costumes, and Brian MacDevitt's compassionately supportive lighting, The Retreat from Moscos is a treat to New York courtesy of a London playwright.