Eileen Atkins and John Lithgow in The Retreat from Moscow(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Eileen Atkins and John Lithgow in The Retreat from Moscow
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In The Retreat from Moscow, William Nicholson examines an aspect of dealings between the sexes that I'm not sure I've seen examined before -- although, Lord knows, it's been more than hinted at in books by Deborah Tannen and similar Men-From-Mars-Women-From-Venus self-help guides. Nicholson's sometimes patchy but ultimately rewarding probe is founded on an assumption about a basic difference between men and women: that, in any romantic liaison, women want and need more from men than men are willing or able to give. Perhaps the theory is provable, perhaps it's not -- but, for Nicholson's purposes, it serves.

Just two days short of their 33rd wedding anniversary, Alice (Eileen Atkins) is relentlessly going after Edward (John Lithgow) in an effort to get him to cop to a problem in their attitudes toward each other. Although she senses that something is newly or recently wrong, her combativeness doesn't seem unprecedented. A woman who's passionate about poetry, Alice can apparently quote hundreds of poems and gets around to a dozen or so here. She has been needling Edward to talk more revealingly about his feelings for years. She's so mired in her mission that she can't stop herself, for instance, from telling him how much of their life together -- down to the hour -- he has spent doing crossword puzzles.

For his part, Edward only reluctantly puts his paper aside. He even more reluctantly searches for a word to describe, at Alice's insistence, what he wants their marriage to be. "Sunny," he finally says, and it's just the sort of namby-pamby response that provokes Alice to say that whereas he's looking for an easy life, she believes life is most meaningful when it's hard. "What rot," she accuses him of speaking. Through the play's first act she uses that phrase more than once, as if she's hammering nails into the coffin of their relationship.

The impasse is broken when Edward eventually admits that he's fallen in love with a woman named Angela; he's come to realize that she can provide him with the relatively relaxed existence he desires. But before Edward tells Alice that he's going to leave her, he confides in his son, Jamie (Ben Chaplin), a 32-year-old man who's very much his father's son to the extent that he, too, isn't very forthcoming about himself. "Forthcome," Alice says to him in the second act, when she is only slowly letting go of the suicidal thoughts she's had since Edward has moved out. By this time, The Retreat from Moscow has become a drama about the psychological pains that three people suffer at the breakup of a marriage. (Incidentally, the title comes from Edward's fascination with Napoleon's debacle in Russia and Alice's appropriation of the notion of retreat to describe Edward's slinking withdrawal from her.)

As he follows the characters' disparate trajectories, Nicholson depicts a number of devastating moments. The most stunning scene is the one wherein Edward takes his time letting Alice know that he's on his way out the door for good. Because he has already vouchsafed the news to Jamie, the audience knows what's coming. It's a canny way to rivet our attention on Alice as she slowly takes in Edward's statements. And that's where director Daniel Sullivan, who always seems to get these domestic dramas exactly right, plays his trump card: namely, Eileen Atkins, one of the English-speaking world's foremost reactors. The growing disbelief she evinces turns heartbreaking when she challenges Edward to try once more to make things work between them and he responds that he's been trying for 33 years. Faced with the accusation that her entire marriage has been a sham, the thin and angular Atkins does one of those stage implosions that only top-notch performers can bring off. But everything this actress does is perfect; if she's ever made a false move on stage, either here or in London, I have yet to see or hear about it.

Nicholson, whose last Broadway entry was Shadowlands, has written a speech for Edward on the subject of his marriage to Alice that's somehow lovely in its horror. During the monologue, Edward recalls the circumstances of his meeting Alice: He encountered her after boarding the wrong train, and he sees that misstep as a numbing metaphor for his years with the wrong woman. The wounded expression that Lithgow wears as he delivers the speech is only one among many he evinces in his seamless portrayal of a good man who may also, for all his goodness, be weak. Lithgow has spent much of the past decade playing an alien in Third Rock from the Sun, but the alienation he presents here is infinitely more profound.

Ben Chaplin inThe Retreat from Moscow(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Ben Chaplin in
The Retreat from Moscow
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
From one perspective, Edward is only the latest reserved Englishmen in a long line of them, but Nicholson has quite deftly left it up in the air as to whether or not his reserve is a sign of emotional deficiency. The playwright has also been clever about making Jamie as reticent as his father; he, too, takes his time about confessing to his mother that he's been unlucky in love, and Ben Chaplin neatly conveys Jamie's disappointment even while taking care to differentiate it from the larger disappointments with which his parents are grappling.

That Jamie chooses to be sketchy about himself is one of the glitches that keeps The Retreat from Moscow from being completely satisfying. Nicholson has nicely drawn a son who loves both his parents but, because he says so little about the rest of Jamie's life, the character is seen in a severely limited light. (That's only a figure of speech, since Brian MacDevitt's actual lighting is fine. So are John Gromada's original music and sound design.) Once Nicholson has Edward leave Alice, he seems less certain about what to do with them. He has Edward report disturbing phone calls and sudden appearances Alice is making at the school where he teaches history, and he has Alice contemplate suicide. There's a strong scene in which Edward makes Alice promise that she'll alert him to any radical action she plans to take, but too much of Nicholson's second act feels like marking time until Jamie's touching curtain summation.

Alice, Edward, and Jamie live out their rift in Jane Greenwood's subtly unprepossessing costumes and on a John Lee Beatty set. Known for architectural thoroughness, Beatty has come up with one of his rarer abstract design. Taking his cue from the play's depiction of a house that may never have been a home, he creates a domicile that consists only of some furniture and a thin wall with two door frames in it. Behind the wall is a hanging that looks like tangled branches, clearly intended to echo the knotted family on display. Before the play begins, Beatty displays a scrim on which is vividly exhibited an enlarged detail of Adolphe Yvon's historical painting "Marshall Ney Supporting the Rear Guard During the Retreat From Moscow."

The notion behind the painting's presence may be obvious, but that can't be said of anything else about The Retreat from Moscow. The play is a worthy consideration of what happens when good people make mistakes with all the best intentions and then try forcing them to come right.