Inspired by a true story that occurred in Nuremberg, Germany in 1946 when 1,900 German prisoners of war were poisoned by arsenic-laced bread, playwright Daniel Goldfarb has spun an intriguing revenge fantasy in
The Retributionists, now at Playwrights Horizons. Nonetheless, the play feels as if it needed another draft before going into production. There are great scenes, wonderful moments, and fascinating and breathtaking moral complexities that suddenly flash and then get mired in mediocre melodrama.
There is no shortage of plot in The Retributionists. In addition to four love affairs that require sorting out, there are two spectacularly large plans to exact revenge upon Germany by a group of former Jewish partisans. In Act I, we are told that a plan is underway in which Germany will pay in kind for the murder of six million Jews. By the time we reach Act II, another plan is being put into effect, and this is the one that uses the historical incident of the arsenic-tinged bread.
How we get from Plan A to Plan B revolves around the passions of the show’s main characters. The leader of the group is Dov (Adam Driver), who believes that sometimes justice and revenge can be the same thing. He is also involved in an intense three-way romantic entanglement with two beautiful young women, Anika (Margarita Levieva) and Dichka (Cristin Milioti), and convinces them to be his co-conspirators in a massive terrorist attack after the war. Into this mix comes Jascha (Adam Rothenberg), who carries a torch for Anika, his former lover.
As Anika, who manipulates both men and events with powerful results, Levieva gives a heavy-handed performance, which is in sharp contrast to Rothenberg’s far more understated portrayal, which grounds some of the overwrought aspects of the play with a humanistic realism. Driver and Milioti both provide solid, engaging portrayals, with Driver effectively capturing Dov’s charismatic egotism, while Milioti gently gives us the one character of this foursome who represents the future.
Leigh Silverman directs the play with a straightforward simplicity, smartly using the doors that are so prevalent in Derek McLane’s set design to suggest both danger and possibilities. Tom Kitt’s original music strongly establishes the mood of the piece, as does Peter Kaczorowski’s atmospheric lighting. Yet, all these elements are in service to a play that intrigues more than it satisfies.