Over the summer, much was made in the media of the success of Quentin Tarantino’s Jewish revenge picture, “Inglorious Basterds.” A mix of structural virtuosity and moral and emotional nincompoopery, the film expressed Tarantino’s lip-smacking love of torture, and titillated audiences were delighted by its sadism.
Daniel Goldfarb’s similarly themed play, “The Retributionists,” has had the good or bad luck to open on the film’s heels, resulting in attention for itself, but also in inapt comparisons. While movies have always pandered to base appetites and tickled perversities, more is expected of theater, and more is usually attempted in it. “The Retributionists” is an ambitious take on the subject, but by setting everything in the shadow of its protagonists’ love affairs, Goldfarb — whose last play was the romantic comedy “Modern Orthodox” — ultimately does his own dumbing down.
The play fictionalizes the story of Abba Kovner, a renowned partisan who led other “Avengers” to fight Nazis in the ghetto of Vilna, Poland, then hid and resisted in the nearby forests until the end of the war. In 1946, Kovner and his band hatched elaborate plots to punish ex-Nazis and, in fact, any German: hunting down and killing officers, poisoning the water supplies of major cities and fatally spiking the bread delivered to SS guards in an American POW camp in Germany. Later, Kovner would renounce revenge, become an acclaimed Israeli writer and found the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv.
“The Retributionists” ignores the aftermath and changes the names, but keeps most of the earlier events. At the top, four Jewish guerrilla fighters connect over their imminent postwar plots. On a train in Germany, brilliant resistance leader Dov (Adam Driver) reconnoiters with Dinchka (Cristin Milioti) — his ex-lover and the conscience of the group — on his way to deliver a suitcase of cyanide into the water supply. Meanwhile, in a hotel room in Paris, alluring and passionate Anika (Margarita Levieva) meets the handsome, Aryan-looking Jascha (Adam Rothenberg), who is her former lover. Dov is betrayed and arrested, and Plan B is set in motion: Jascha will go undercover in a German bakery to poison SS guards. Which one
of the four actually scuttled the first scheme and put the second in place — which one is actually the brains of the group — is saved for a secret as the play goes on. The revelation will determine the fates of the protagonists, as the conspirators fall out.
Proximity to the Tarantino film aside, Goldfarb has said that this play was actually his response to 9/11, an attempt to understand the workings of a terrorist cell from within. That goal, though noble, is one beyond his gifts. Goldfarb probably means to show that both the band’s idealism and its solidarity — which flourished in the forest near the ghetto — have been corrupted by vengeful fanaticism, drawing parallels to other activists motivated by ideology and rage. But his concentration on the supposedly “steamy” dynamics between the men and women diminishes the seriousness of his theme, especially when his dialogue is so superficial, and his “romantic thriller” plot implausible.
Anika — as played by the attractive, committed but underqualified Margarita Levieva — is finally revealed and condemned as a conniving, emotionless, all-powerful woman, while the men are painted as arrogant poseurs and/or lovesick fools. In other words, what actually motors the play are the author’s feelings about the sexes; an emphasis on that may have been appropriate for his previous work, but proves shallow in this one.
The creative team is hampered by the play’s focus. Rothenberg has a dynamic Willem Dafoe quality, and his vulnerability adds a layer to his stalwart look, but Goldfarb swipes from another romantic comedy, “Moonstruck,” giving him a mangled, gloved hand to add passionate pain; and Driver is not charismatic enough to be convincing as a leader of men or, especially, of women. The director, Leigh Silverman (who’s shown great versatility recently, evoking the charmed and mysterious childhood world of “Coraline” and the hard-boiled, heartfelt lesbian pulp of “The Beebo Brinker Chronicles”), serves the play’s needs by turning up the heat between the lovers to entertaining — if inconsequential — effect.
Only the gifted Cristin Milioti as Dinchka suggests the potential of “The Retributionists” and drives what is by far the best scene: We’ve learned that the two women were involved in a ménage à trios with Dov in the woods; Dinchka now confronts Anika about the immorality of their upcoming mass murders and her belief that living in Palestine will really be the best revenge. In a moving exchange, she recalls the forest — how she felt like “a hero” there — invoking the transcendent quality that their violent resistance once had, and the innocent, animal-like pleasure of their formerly triangular affair. Nearly unrecognizable as the childish bride a few months ago in “Stunning,” Milioti hauntingly captures the character’s intelligence and sensuality as she laments what’s been lost; plus, she conveys the period better than anyone else onstage.
She’s helped by Susan Hilferty’s authentic ’40s costumes (though Anika’s showcase dress seems anachronistic). Derek McLane’s stage design features shifting isolated pieces of interiors, surrounded by unchanging brick walls and street lamps; it conjures a shadowy threat, as if the war has never gone away. An omnipresent woodland backdrop might have been more resonant, but there’s a painful, stabbing wit in making the door at Jascha’s bakery job resemble the mouth of an oven.
More than any of the recent movies, the film that comes to mind is “Army of Shadows,” Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic 1969 account of French Resistance fighters. There, the sexual intrigues were always inextricably entangled in the global conflict during which they occurred, probably because Melville himself was an actual resistance fighter — an achievement that Goldfarb is incapable of matching. He can’t help being too young to have lived through World War II, and he deserves credit for portraying Jews as tough, sexualized figures, without employing Tarantino-like cartoon excesses. But ultimately, because of his own lightweight preoccupations, “The Retributionists” and “Inglorious Basterds” essentially do the same thing: trivialize the Holocaust.
“The Retributionists” runs at Playwrights Horizons in New York City until September 27.
Laurence Klavan is a playwright and novelist living in New York City.