Academics Devour Their Books; Spouses Devour Each Other

Marital hands: Atkins and Lithgow
photo: Joan Marcus

John Lithgow and Eileen Atkins are superb actors; watching them work is a tremendous pleasure. Newcomer Ben Chaplin gives them solid support. Beyond that, there's little to say about William Nicholson's The Retreat From Moscow, an I-want-a-divorce play so stuffy and dated it might have been exhumed from some London warehouse where 1950s producer Binkie Beaumont stored his teatime matinee treats for genteel theatergoers. After 33 years of nonstop bullying, a meek prep-schoolmaster has the sense to leave his poetry-loving wife for a simpler (unseen) woman. This has (surprise, surprise) devastating effects on the wife, whose reactions edge toward violent insanity. Their emotionally crippled son steers painfully between them. Some of the talk rings true, but it also rings thoroughly familiar bells, with a one-note Catholic dogmatism that suggests the 20th century has escaped the characters' notice. Why would anyone back such a play in 2003? Answer: It's British, and Broadway producers are moronic culture snobs. Good acting, though; Dan Sullivan directed effectively, if starkly.

Praise, more briefly, for Keith Reddin and Susan Greenhill, who make a sweet, airy soufflé of the first of A.R. Gurney's two trifling Strictly Academic one-acts, about a professorial couple's spousal complications. The second piece, in which director Paul Benedict lets Greenhill overact gratingly, toys with concepts of theater and ritual; it might have made ghoulish fun as a 10-minute sketch, but palls when protracted for an hour. Gurney, like the topologist in his curtain-raiser, should know better than to wave his protractor around like that.

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