John Lithgow and Ben Chaplin in The Retreat from Moscow(Photo © Joan Marcus)
John Lithgow and Ben Chaplin in The Retreat from Moscow
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In The Retreat From Moscow, a play about the dissolution of a marriage of 33 years, Eileen Atkins plays Alice, a wife and mother who is as passionate as she is irritating. She's different -- and it was that difference that originally enticed Edward (John Lithgow) to marry her. But, for a long time now, Edward has buried himself in crossword puzzles as just one way of avoiding Alice's relentless demands to know his feelings. Soon after the play begins, we learn that Edward has had enough; he's fallen in love with a woman who is, if nothing else, far more agreeable than Alice.

At this news, Alice's emotions turn from general dissatisfaction to utter devastation. She begs, pleads, bullies, and threatens, but nothing convinces Edward to try to preserve their marriage. He is in full "retreat" mode. By the way, the play's metaphoric title is used like a ball peen hammer on intellectual sheet metal: It conjures an image but there's nothing quiet about the effort. The play's subtleties are found elsewhere.

For instance, there is the shifting power balance between Alice and Edward. Caught in the middle is their 32-year-old son Jamie (Ben Chaplin). He's the most underwritten character in the play, yet he's the one who ultimately helps move the soul-stirring performance of Atkins and the revelatory performance of Lithgow from the realm of "actor's vehicle" into the strata of great theater. Jamie is a cipher throughout the first act but one can't help but think that the playwright, William Nicholson, is waiting to reveal Jamie's character in the second -- much like a key change in a song -- to heighten the drama.

Nicholson doesn't disappoint; neither, though, does he meet our expectations. Jamie doesn't really reveal anything more about himself in Act II except the remarkable, hidden depth of his emotions. In a scene with his desolated mother, who is seriously contemplating suicide, Jamie confides in her that he has always seen her as an emotional "pioneer." If she can't survive, then he knows he won't be able to either. In his own subtle way he's telling his mother: "If you kill yourself, I'll kill myself too." He's thrown down a gauntlet that puts her motherly instincts to the test. The question isn't "Would you give your life for me?" but, rather, "Would you live your life for me?" It's remarkable writing, and this is where the play turns into something profound. It builds to a powerful climax with Jamie's breathtaking curtain monologue, which reveals nothing about him (except that he must be the playwright) but everything about his parents and -- by extension -- much about marriage, love, and loss.

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Steven Ray Watkins
Steven Ray Watkins
Turning on the Light

Steven Ray Watkins must be supremely talented. How else to explain the fact that he recently performed a pop show chock full of lightweight songs yet kept us enthralled from first to last? It certainly helped that there were a few tunes in his program that carried some real weight in their lyrics -- such as "Christopher Columbus" (Larry Tagg), which also benefited from Watkins's superior acting skills. Among modern songwriters, you can hardly go wrong with Tom Waits, and Watkins performed to perfection his "I Never Talk to Strangers."

Watkins is an actor-singer-pianist-musical arranger, and all of those talents were put to good use during the course of his show at Mama Rose. For instance, he created some soaring harmonies with his two guest artists, Karen Mack and Lennie Watts. Watkins played the piano with an exuberant abandon, acted his songs with a delicacy that few cabaret artists ever attain, and exuded a sense of joy. He made us care about music we don't ordinarily like because he put so much of himself into it.

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Paula West
Paula West
Wild, Wild West

The San Francisco-based jazz singer Paula West makes some of the most beautiful, smooth sounds on either coast, but not until her current show at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room (running through November 15) has she been so much fun. In what looks, sounds, and feels like a breakthrough performance, West displays a sense of humor, an engaging playfulness, and a willingness to take chances. Her earlier acts were safe and pretty; this one is exciting.

There isn't a single song in the act that doesn't rely on its lyrics for the ultimate effect. From a clever country tune called "Ragtime Cowboy Joe" (Lewis F. Muir/Maurice Abrahams/Grant Clarke) to the lady's lament "Legalize My Name" (Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer, from St. Louis Woman), West delivers her lines with a crisp clarity and lets them float on her warm, supple voice. Her show builds to a surprising climax when she lets loose with a deeply felt rendition of "Smile," Charlie Chaplin's Oscar-winning ballad from Limelight, and then follows it up with a clever jazz version of "Trouble" (Meredith Willson, from The Music Man.)

West uses her hands and arms like an orchestra conductor, giving more physical emphasis to the music than she might if her gestures rather expressed the underlying meaning of the lyric. But her personality comes through in other ways, including the great rapport she has with her gifted musical director, Eric Reed. The band is superb, Reed's arrangements are exquisite, and there is a comfortable camaraderie between the bandleader and the singer.