Eileen Atkins quickens slow 'Retreat'

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Nov. 13, 2003 at 12:11 PM
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NEW YORK, Nov. 13 (UPI) -- Acclaimed British actress Dame Eileen Atkins is making one of her occasional American appearances in "The Retreat from Moscow," a sudsy domestic drama by William Nicholson that is not quite up to the standard set by his play "Shadowlands" that won a Tony Award in 1991 and was made into a much-admired film.

"Retreat" is so subdued in audience impact that one might mistake it for a Broadway dud were it not for a subtly calibrated performance by Atkins, who co-stars with John Lithgow and Ben Chaplin. Connoisseurs of fine acting will not want to miss her engaging performance at the Booth Theater.

Nicholson, best known for "Shadowlands" and his screenplay for the Oscar-winning movie "Gladiator," opens "Retreat" in the suburban English home of Edward (Lithgow), a colorless professor of history and religion, and Alice, his eccentric, wittily acerbic wife of 33 years who aspires to her husband's cultural level by working on a private anthology of English poetry.

Whatever love once existed between these two self-involved, intellectually ill-matched people has degenerated into a testy companionship. Edward, a reticent, laconic man, is engrossed in reading a book of excerpts from the diaries of Napoleon's officers about their horrific retreat from Russia and working crossword puzzles, ignoring his wife and her efforts to get his attention.

Edward admits to their passive son, Jamie, who works in London and spends weekends with them, that he feels he "got on the wrong train" when he met Alice and wants to retreat from his marriage. He has met the divorced mother of one of his students whom he likes because she doesn't continually criticize him as Alice does, and he wants to marry her as soon as possible.

When Alice learns of her husband's defection, she calls him a traitor and murderer, sends him clippings about traitors and murderers, tries to blackmail him by threatening suicide, refuses to sign a divorce application, and exhibits symptoms of madness. Her reaction enrages Edward but concerns Jamie deeply and weakens his determination to "keep out of the line of fire" in his parents' marital war.

Alice's seeming inability to imagine herself alone in the world proves to be only a passing aberration for a woman of her aggressive tendencies and devout Roman Catholic faith. She soon finds herself involved in giving tea and sympathy to HIV-positive gay men, whom she adores, and unwanted advice to the agnostic Jamie on how to find religion, stop drifting, and settle down to a meaningful life, which to Alice still means marriage "until death do us part."

Except for Alice's sporadic outbursts of rage verging on violence, this story is told at such a lumbering pace that audience boredom would probably set in early on without the 69-year-old Atkins' inspired performance. It involves her totally, giving full range to her ability to act with her entire face (including her eyebrows) and body (including her expressive legs), but does not quite make up for the nagging, querulous aspects of the role as written by Nicholson.

The naturally engaging Lithgow seems inhibited by a role that should be sympathetic but is oddly irritating because of its dullness and insensitivity. The Lithgow who won a Tony Award for his Walter Winchell-inspired role in the musical "Sweet Smell of Success" last season seems to have been an altogether different actor.

Chaplin, a British actor on his way to being a Hollywood star, seems at sea as a son caught in the middle emotionally by the breakup of parents he considers "first among women" and "first among men." It is a role right out of lowbrow TV sitcoms and not an auspicious one for a Broadway debut, since he has nothing much to do but look eternally distressed and ill at ease.

Daniel Sullivan's skilled direction includes keeping all three members of the cast on stage throughout most of the play, leaving in shadow any one of them not involved in a scene. John Lee Beatty's set imaginatively lit by Brian MacDevitt consists of an enveloping screen of leafless tree branches framing the stage, which is furnished by a few simple, ugly pieces of furniture. Jane Greenwood's costumes are suitably drab.

And what is next for the forever busy Atkins famed for her roles in Shakespearian plays and Merchant-Ivory movies and having played Virginia Woolf on the stage twice? She is cast in the role of the Old Goat Lady in Anthony Minghella's film, "Cold Mountain," set in the South during the Civil War. It will be released next month.

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