nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 13, 2009
The Retributionists, the terrible new play by Daniel Goldfarb at Playwrights Horizons, is inspired by actual events. In a nutshell: after World War II, a group of Jewish survivors, calling themselves "The Avengers," planned and implemented several methods to punish the low-level Nazis and ordinary German people who had, actively or passively, allowed the murders of the Holocaust to happen. Read accounts of this group's actions in the Guardian and on CBS News.
This little-known piece of history presents plenty of dramatic possibilities, and plenty of moral/ethical/philosophical ones as well. But the choices Goldfarb has made in his play serve only to trivialize what actually happened and what it meant and still means for Jews and all citizens of the world.
In Goldfarb's play, four young Jews are presented as the masterminds of two plots to commit mass murder against the Germans. All lived together in the forests of Poland, where they hid out during the war while their families and friends were slaughtered in concentration camps. Goldfarb provides a certain amount of information about how these four lived during the war and about the plans they've hatched in their quest for revenge. But he's mainly concerned with their love lives. He places the quartet in an intricate love triangle, with Dov (nominal leader of the "retributionists"), Jascha (a handsome blond Pole), and Dinchka (a lovely, quiet young woman) at the three corners, all worshipfully in love with Anika, who is only 21 in 1946 but is presented here as the brains of the entire operation. Dov and Dinchka also have a sexual (and perhaps other-than-sexual) relationship. It is this kind of desire, as opposed to lust for blood or justice, that permeates The Retributionists. To give just one example: Dov says, on the train that will take him and Dinchka to Germany to carry out a major terrorist attack, that he is horny and wants to make love. I had real problems taking anything in this play seriously.
Attention to detail on the part of the playwright and the director (Leigh Silverman) is sorely lacking. These four Jews appear to have no collaborators or friends of any kind; Anika lives in a Paris hotel, where she waits for Dov and Jascha to do things and, as far as we can tell, that's all she does. Who is funding all of this? How did she get to Paris in the first place? Much of the play's first act consists of Anika trying to get Jascha to implement "Plan B," but she won't tell him what it is. Why not?
Meanwhile, a good five minutes of the first act are given over to entirely unnecessary transitions between the two locations where it takes place (Anika's hotel room and the train that Dov and Dinchka are on). There is plenty of room on the Playwrights Horizons stage for both of these sets to live side by side. Instead, Derek McLane has provided massive set pieces that glide on and off and up and down during these transitions, while brooding portentous music by Tom Kitt reminds us that we're watching a suspense thriller.
The most ludicrous production issue comes in Act Two, in a scene in a bakery where Jascha has been dispatched to undertake his act of revenge. Hundreds of loaves of "bread" are on a cart on stage, but when they are moved individually to a worktable, to be wrapped for delivery, each loaf thuds noisily on the counter. I thought: are they made of concrete? A highly distracting, and preventable, bit of business, this.
Goldfarb pads out the second act with three German characters, each of whom is gratuitously shown to be anti-Semitic. Nonetheless, the three actors playing these roles—Hamilton Clancy, Rebecca Henderson, and Lucia Strus—work gamely to make these characters as fully-formed as the script allows, and their scenes prove to be the most believable in the play as a result. The four young actors portraying the title characters—Adam Driver, Margarita Levieva, Cristin Milioti, and Adam Rothenberg—meet with significantly less success. Rothenberg's blow-dried and beautifully styled blond hair proved to be as distracting to me as the thudding bread loaves. I kept wondering how this alleged Displaced Person had managed to find time and money to get to a top-flight hair salon on his way to Anika's Parisian hotel room.
A quick internet search reveals that a couple of books have been written about the true events Goldfarb alludes to in his play, and certainly a drama on the subject is warranted. But The Retributionists, with its shallow melodrama standing in for the weighty political and philosophical considerations that this morsel of history demands, isn't it.