There is much fine, true writing in William Nicholson's "The Retreat From Moscow," but guess what? Little of it is contributed by the play's author. This lugubrious divorce drama is laced with quotations from various poets but the highly literate camouflage cannot disguise the essentially meretricious nature of the play.

There is much fine, true writing in William Nicholson’s “The Retreat From Moscow,” but guess what? Little of it is contributed by the play’s author. This lugubrious divorce drama is laced with quotations from various poets — everyone from George Herbert to Robert Frost to Rainer Maria Rilke gets a stanza or two — but the highly literate camouflage cannot disguise the essentially meretricious nature of the play. Nicholson would have us believe that the unraveling marriage of two tiresome characters is a tragedy worthy of comparison to the grim rout of the title — a maneuver during which, we are reminded, more than 400,000 died.

Yes, it’s time to add another entry to the Broadway crime blotter. Last week’s victim was movie star Hugh Jackman, and this time it’s an estimable stage actress, Eileen Atkins, taking a painful hit. Her valiant struggle to reconcile the mess of contradictions in her character is even more difficult to watch than Jackman’s battle with the vacuous “Boy From Oz.” At least Jackman got to divert us with a little song and dance; Atkins only has snippets of poetry for a fig leaf.

Alice, the dissatisfied wife Atkins labors to bring to life, is surely one of the most persistently and variously unpleasant characters to hold center stage in a Broadway play.

In the play’s opening minutes, we listen as she takes petty exception to every innocuous utterance from her withdrawn husband, Edward (John Lithgow). When he mentions that their son, Jamie (Ben Chaplin), said it had taken him a while to drive down from London, she is astonished. “He can’t have,” she insists. “Why not?” “Because it’s such a stupid and pointless thing to talk about. Why would he say anything so ridiculously dull?”

It seems that through 30 years of family life, Alice has remained ignorant of that everyday lubricant of social intercourse known as small talk.

If Alice is outraged at this trifle, you can only imagine how she reacts to such dire offenses as Edward’s fondness for crossword puzzles, his forgetfulness when it comes to daily chores or his vague plans for their anniversary. Jamie himself is buttonholed on issues large and small, everything from his single status to his faith. (Alice is a devout Catholic, although apparently she is not of the opinion that charity begins at home.)

Alice’s Grand Inquisitor act really gets rolling when she brings up the larger issue of the couple’s emotionally barren marriage. Imagine Edward Albee’s George and Martha, minus the wit — actually, minus George — and you’d have some sense of this wearying exchange.

“I want a real marriage,” Alice whines, but what is missing in Nicholson’s depiction of this relationship is any sense of how Alice and Edward could have negotiated 30 years of intimacy on these terms.

George and Martha, for all their flagrant enmity, were believable as a couple who had found a comfortable equilibrium in their misery, tossing taunts back and forth as in a game of pingpong. But who has Alice been playing pingpong with for the last 30 years? Edward, it seems, has been curled up in an armchair, reading history and doing the crosswords.

If Nicholson’s view of the strains in a long marriage feels distorted, his depiction of the actual breakup is even more suspect. Although their mutual unhappiness appears to be her favorite conversational topic, Alice is dumbfounded when Edward announces, quite sensibly, that he’s leaving. Her incredulity seems more a symptom of general obtuseness than the emotionally instability that is vaguely hinted at.

And Alice’s subsequent behavior — hysterical pleading gradually gives way to cool suicide threats — is no less puzzling: How is it possible that this intelligent woman, with a loving son, an abiding faith and a deep reverence for poetry, could find life untenable without the man who has been boring her senseless for three decades?

It isn’t really possible — the character is continually thrust into false positions for dubious dramatic purposes. And Atkins, one of the finest actresses on either side of the Atlantic, cannot succeed in knitting together the clashing strands of Alice’s personality into a believable whole. It’s a measure of the writing’s stridency that this infinitely subtle performer often strikes blunt emotional notes here: What else can she do?

If the character of Alice is almost too substantial, the other two are nearly devoid of substance. Lithgow’s quiet, economical performance is unable to supply much interesting color to his henpecked husband. And although Chaplin is a sensitive actor, Jamie is practically a talking ottoman, pushed onstage whenever Alice and Edward need someone to respond to their complaints.

The drama is played on a chilly, stylized set by John Lee Beatty that honors the playwright’s desire to give cosmic significance to his wan domestic drama. In addition to those frequent dips into the Norton Anthology of Poetry, there are repeated allusions to the military folly of the title.

“Is it my duty to save my comrade’s life, even at the risk of losing my own? Or am I permitted, am I entitled, to do what is necessary for my own survival?” Edward wonders, metaphorically.

“She feels this is a part of something bigger. Like a war. And she’s one of the casualties,” Jamie responds.

The Retreat From Moscow” is certainly not the first play to use martial imagery to amplify a domestic conflict, but it’s certainly among the most humorless, notwithstanding some cheap gags about Alice’s new dog (she names it Edward).

Directed with respectful somberness by Daniel Sullivan, it wears its bleakness like a military badge of honor. “We each have to carry our own burden,” Jamie tells Alice. “But you’re like the explorer. You’re further down the road … So if after a while you don’t go on anymore, I’ll know the road is too hard, for too long. I’ll know that in the end the unhappiness wins.” Nicholson seems to be unaware that a play can be miserable without being meaningful. And vice versa.

The Retreat From Moscow

Booth Theater; 772 seats; $81.25 top

Production

A Susan Quint Gallin, Stuart Thompson, Ron Kastner, True Love Prods., Mary Lu Roffe, Jam Theatricals presentation of a play in two acts by William Nicholson. Directed by Daniel Sullivan.

Creative

Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; music and sound, John Gromada; production stage manager, Roy Harris. Opened Oct. 23, 2003. Reviewed Oct. 20. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

Edward - John Lithgow Jamie - Ben Chaplin Alice - Eileen Atkins

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