Friday 28th April 2023 at the Finborough Theatre, London.
Reviewer: Emma Dorfman
The Retreat is reminiscent of much of the realist dramas that North American audiences seemingly couldn’t get enough of in the early 2000s. Most of the time, it reads less theatrical and nearly slice-of-life. As much as the 4-person cast and the director try to pull deeper meaning from the lesser-discussed, meatier topics within the piece (the Israel-Palestine conflict, migration and emigration, tribalism and homeland, to name a few), ultimately, it is the surface-level script that pulls the focus entirely away from this attempt.
At the top of the play, we meet Rachel (Jill Winternitz), a Hebrew school teacher with strong opinions against Israel who also aspires to be a screenwriter. Her first script captures the attention of David (Max Rinehart), a hot-shot script editor who runs a production company in Toronto alongside his partner, Jeff (Michael Feldsher), who is a “more sex, more violence, more everything” advocate. David, however, wants to finally make films that are “about something,” and Rachel’s script might just be it. The script is epic, larger than life, and follows the coming of a self-proclaimed Jewish messiah, Zvi, after the pogroms in Poland in the 17th century.
Within Rachel’s script alone, there is a plethora of Jewish history to explore here. And yet, much to my surprise, the programme notes cover the history of Jewish migration to Canada, mention notable Canadian Jews, and introduce us to Canadian politics in the 1990s. But they never even touch upon the notion of the messiah in Jewish culture and history, or even the nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict during this time period– a topic that is discussed in much detail in the many meetings seen between Rachel and her father (Jonathan Tafler). In this sense, it appears there is much disconnect between Jason Sherman’s original script, first published in 1996, and the play that director Emma Jude Harris (also a notable dramaturg and researcher) has envisioned.
This disconnect first appears and is solidified when Rachel and David finally meet at the exclusive writers’ retreat, in which Rachel has been chosen to develop her script with David as her mentor. Despite David being married with kids, the energy is electric between the two of them in their first meeting. We already know from here on out that their love story will dominate the rest of the 2 hour, 45-minute long piece (by the way, should we abolish run times this long?). And, indeed, the affair between Rachel and David becomes much of what Jeff would describe as a fantastic film: an affair, a betrayal, a wild ride of a romance. As Rachel continues to re-write her film to Jeff’s liking, in the hopes of getting her first big break, The Retreat re-writes itself into a 90s/early 2000s romantic comedy.
Aside from the issues inherent in the script, Harris and designers Cheng Keng, Ben Jacobs, and Alys Whitehead do their best with the small stage in the Finborough. Whitehead’s use of universal set pieces and props does not go unnoticed, as each piece is transferred seamlessly between the various settings within the piece. Keng’s projections, too, make the inspiring, outdoorsy atmosphere of the retreat come to life. Each performance is full of depth, truth, and so focused that you hardly notice you’re in for a full 3-hour long play. The developments in Rachel and David’s relationship at the end of the play are loaded with vulnerability, and Rachel’s father’s last few lines contain a wry humour that will have you feeling lucky to have “the good things” in life, even if they don’t last very long at all.
The Retreat is at Finborough Theatre until May 13th 2023 – you can find more information and tickets here.
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