In the program notes for the Artists Repertory Theatre's (ART) new show, artistic director Allen Nause describes The Retreat from Moscow as the "quintessential ART play." This puzzles me. Of all the shows I've seen at ART, Retreat is probably the last one I would describe as definitive: It's a gussied-up Lifetime movie, a poetry-shrouded soap opera, a less-than-auspicious entry in the ever-growing canon of art about white people fucking.
The plot concerns an elderly couple, Edward (Keith Scales) and Alice (JoAnn Johnson), and their grown son, Jamie (Alex Moggridge). Edward and Alice are having problems: Alice wants a level of emotional engagement that Edward can't provide, and Edward wants out. The early scenes between Alice and Edward, immediately before Edward announces his decision to leave, are painful on several levels. Alice keeps demanding that Edward look at her, that they have a "real" interaction; she's desperate to feel a connection that doesn't ultimately exist. These moments could be poignant, if we had any sense that these two had shared anything meaningful in their 33-year marriage. All that's really conveyed, though, is that Alice is a needy harpy, and that Edward should have left her years ago. The ineffectual Jamie is caught awkwardly in the middle, trying to support his mother while understanding his father's decision.
Aside from the script, which never approaches the profundity of insight it strives for, the actors just don't seem to be communicating: There's a sense that they're each just waiting for their turn to talk. If this were a deliberate comment on the impossibility of human connection, it might be effective, but I don't think it is. I think it's just lackluster acting.
This is an ART show after all, so a few things work. The backdrop is lovely: Backlit silhouettes of tree branches send shadows across the stage, making for some great eye candy. In a stunningly trite bit of set design, though, the stage itself is made of uneven squares presumably intended to represent the unevenness of the emotional landscape.
Ultimately, the production fails to make you care about the characters (problematic, for an interpersonal drama). Rather than the "quintessential ART play," Retreat struck me as a jarring exception to ART's usually solid productions.