FringeReview UK 2023
It’s extraordinary this play’s waited 27 years to arrive. But that’s true of three plays mounted by the Finborough this year alone. Another reason to beat a path there.
Written by Jason Sherman. Directed by Emma Jude Harris, Set and Costume Designer Alys Whitehead, Lighting Design Ben Jacobs, Projection Design Cheng Keng, AV Supervisor Adam Lenson
Stage Manager Chloe Jones, Associate Producer Julia Blomberg, ASM Fay Franklin, Intimacy Co-ordinator Enric Ortuno, Dialect Coach Briar Knowles
Till May 13th
There’s a few moments early in this play around an aspiring screenwriter that made me label this Speed-the-Maple. Jason Sherman’s The Retreat – its European premiere at the Finborough directed by Emma Jude Harris – was written in 1996. That’s eight years after David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, with which it shares plot-points.
So why does it turn out more interesting, if far less exposed via (usually very good) amateur revivals? And more resonant, vividly contemporary? It’s extraordinary this play’s waited 27 years to arrive. But that’s true of three plays mounted by the Finborough this year alone. Another reason to beat a path there.
It’s 1993. Jewish schoolteacher Rachel Benjamin (Jill Winternitz) considers quitting rather than apologise about teaching about Palestine. She’s at odds with Zionist father Wolf Benjamin (Jonathan Tafler) – who left Israel – over what will become the Oslo Accord. In 1996 peace seemed possible; this play harks back to that as metaphor. J. T. Rodgers’ Oslo from 2017, is now a memorial to that hope.
Rachel’s booked a retreat since David Fine (Max Rinehart), who’s not yet met her, is inspired by her flawed Biblical screenplay, despite his long-suffering realist producer partner of 15 years, Jeff Bloom (Michael Feldsher), declaring it can’t be made. David’s the genius script-doctor who once wanted to write, equally won’t pass a script by semi-talented slasher-writer Earl (Sherman’s a screenwriter, he saw the late 90s coming).
David though can keep failing in love, upwards. His tantrums with long-suffering, wise-cracking Jeff furnish some of the most scintillating drama in this two-hours-30 (originally 15 minutes longer) play that never threatens to outstay its welcome.
Feldsher is gloriously buttonholing, shooting saws and slanting ultimatums to Rinehart’s sometimes insufferable arias. Rinehart though invests David with more than evangelical ego. He lends him a plangency, a belief in what he loves at the moment he loves it, and the capacity for devastation.
As idealist, David seems to hold all the aces, but isn’t he being absolutist over luckless Earl’s script? And Rachel’s? It’s one of two scenes where Feldsher revels in whip-smart screenwriter-talk, dazzling in put-downs with the fuse of exasperation finally lit. It’s equally clear though he cares about David, his wife – and Rachel.
Arriving unannounced at the Retreat, Feldsher betrays more complexity than the braggadocio swagger he so easily assumes on first meeting Rachel. He soon comes to wrenched-out revelations, and honesty – even to brutal. His final scenes with David too seem a sudden release.
Another difference from Mamet is that Rachel’s genuine and not plotting; that David falls in love with the script first (though maybe ‘Rachel’ on it gave furiously to hope), that Jeff too finds Rachel witty, honest, uber-smart – and gives her a real chance to revise her work. By this time Rachel despite initial misgivings has fallen for David – their chemistry is palpable (shout-out for intimacy co-ordinator Enric Ortuno). Despite David’s being married to Jen, who’s just like him. There’s something Rachel should know.
Rachel – with demure turtleneck, long if slashed skirt is, though only 33, too ready for sad respectability. It’s clothes sheathing passion that fuels Winternitz’s contrasts: gradating from self-possession and realisation she’s falling, to checking herself, knowing David‘s married, to self-aware abandonment. Once, Rachel states she’s blissfully happy till she opens her eyes.
But she also comes to know David, his constant need for new love: “You can’t sustain passion for years. You’d be dead.” Winternitz’s facial expression, her watchful desolation as she determinedly extricates herself, yet knows she can’t, is heartrending. Right till the last moment you watch Winternitz’s eyes, blisteringly eloquent, furious and heartbreaking.
Just when you think this might turn into simple renunciation, Sherman knows how to twist. Tafler’s Wolf is a triumph of warm contradictions: brutally uncompromising Zionist with a tender regard for his pro-Palestinian daughter; who chose something irrevocable out of love. Wolf’s history’s riveting, Tafler’s authority here transfixing, drawing out his breath awhile in pain to tell a love-story.
Sherman’s kept several patterns implicit till the end. Rachel’s revised script takes on outrageously comic proportions when reduced to three characters; it’s David’s turn to be surprised.
Another pattern’s embedded in Rachel’s script. However clunky her work, the message in the Talmud, light-points and redemption from selfishness, furnish metaphors for the mid-point, and at the end, showing how deeply themed Rachel’s script is.
Though Tafler’s hardly present in Act Two, when he does enter, he nails the themes and turns everything round. You’re riveted by the dying man, now blind but gimlet-eyed, with medical apparatus up his nose and an unerring scent for the right thing to do. Even listening to Rachel reading the newspaper with forbidden names left in.
Alys Whitehead‘s set comprises a desk, varying chairs, script, phone, electronic typewriter, glasses and bottle, spun round in a whirligig for different scenes. There’s a clunk when actors do this with lights dimmed. Dramaturgically you realise Sherman’s written screenplays – there’s too-frequent scene-changes; you feel at that level this might work better as a film. Ben Jacobs’ lighting is subtle – you realise this when in the final scene with David and Jeff there’s a full, blinking glare of neon: emblematically pitiless, nowhere to hide. Even after David exits Jeff reveals a further twist.
Projection designer Cheng Keng and AV Supervisor Adam Lenson produce evocative and sparing projections back, angled at the sides in columns that glow alive. There’s forest scenes, and increasingly one where Rachel’s script evolves into ever-more frantic palimpsests and rewrites.
All four actors are first-rate; each radiates the capacity for redemption. A nod to dialect coach Briar Knowles too as they render authentic accents. If the plot recalls Mamet there’s more humanity, layers to uncover, a question of what life, rather than Sherman will do with these characters next.