Jewish revenge stories are suddenly popping up everywhere. Onscreen, “Defiance” took the earnest action route, while “Inglourious Basterds” went for swaggering, tongue-in-cheek revisionism. “The Retributionists” aims instead for a reflective approach, but issue-drama is not the forte of playwright Daniel Goldfarb, known for lighter Jewish-identity explorations such as “Adam Baum and the Jew Movie” and “Modern Orthodox.” Nor is suspense one of the strengths of Leigh Silverman’s direction, at least not in this inert production, which is further hindered by a wooden performance in a key role.
Goldfarb’s soapy story of a romantically intertwined quartet of Jewish freedom fighters in the immediate aftermath of WWII was inspired by a 1946 incident, in which more than 2,000 German prisoners of war were poisoned by bread from a Nuremberg bakery glazed with arsenic. That clumsily executed plot turns out to be Plan B here, following the failure of a more ambitious scheme to claim “a German for every Jew” by lacing the national water supply with cyanide.
The playwright’s intention is perhaps to ponder the nature of terrorism and its consequences (a word used frequently, with the vocal equivalent of a highlighter), now as much as then, while weighing the more acquiescent alternative of simply living in proud defiance of persecution. But the play fails to build clarity or accumulate intellectual heft in its arguments; neither is it emotionally involving. “The Retributionists” is not quite as dramaturgically flat-footed as last season’s Holocaust drama, “Irena’s Vow,” but it doesn’t have that play’s meaty center of courage and self-sacrifice to compensate for its weaknesses.
Laden with exposition and laborious backgrounding, the talky action unfolds over five scenes set in a Paris hotel room, on a train heading into Germany and in the Nuremberg bake house, with a flashback to a forest during wartime and a coda on a kibbutz near Tel Aviv.
None of the four principal characters is drawn with much depth or consistency, but the big problem is Anika, whose moral compass shifts direction like the wind. She’s cold and manipulative, a ruthless pragmatist one minute; then gullible, lovestruck and needy the next. It would take a commanding stage actor to make much sense of her, and Margarita Levieva (“Adventureland”) is far from it. She alternates between stiff, uninflected readings and forced over-emoting in the role, pretty much bulldozing the dramatic texture every time she’s onstage and rarely connecting with anyone in the cast.
The other leads are solid, particularly Cristin Milioti (“Stunning”) as the more tender-hearted, Zionist-leaning Dinchka, besotted with both Anika and Dov (Adam Driver), the visionary group leader who is as in love with his own oratorical skills as he is with the cause or either one of the women.
Romantic betrayals stack up against radical ones, with Jascha (Adam Rothenberg) ending up the sorriest point of the romantic quadrangle. The group’s best candidate for German infiltration thanks to his gentile looks, Jascha, like Dinchka, questions the validity of fixating on revenge rather than moving on, but his love for Anika makes him putty in her hands. It’s like “Munich” meets “Melrose Place,” only tedious.
Derek McLane’s stylish, minimal sets, Peter Kaczorowski’s noir-tinged lighting and Tom Kitt’s fretful interstitial music combine to evoke a 1940s movie-ish atmosphere, but Silverman’s direction is entirely without tension. However, the writing is mostly at fault, with dialogue that’s often too contemporary (“He kills me!”) and sometimes risibly melodramatic (“I want to get you pregnant on this train. This train heading into Germany. This train whose final destination is an enormous gas chamber.”)
All credibility is shot by the time we get to the bakery scene, in which the tone lurches into comedy with Lusia Strus and Rebecca Henderson as German workers who appear to have wandered in from a “Laverne and Shirley” rerun. But even without such head-scratching moments, this unconvincing play makes it hard to buy any of these phony characters as the impassioned would-be avengers of an attempted genocide.