Senseless killing revenged by more senseless killing is the subject of Daniel Goldfarb’s new play. Set between Paris, Nuremberg and Palestine during the years 1943-46, “The Retributionists” misfires as badly as the plot these Jewish youths cook up to revenge themselves against the German people.
“Those Nazi hunters have it all wrong… It wasn’t Hitler…It’s the People who continue to kill…and dehumanize us to this very day”, proclaims their fanatical leader. Adam Driver portrays Dov with taut self-righteous anger and a matching streak of narcissistic sexuality. As he declares to Dinchka, the woman he loves but refuses to marry, “we’re not doing this just for us. Or even for the Jews. This is bigger than that…This is idealism.”
Indeed, theirs is the idealism of suicide bombers, albeit bred in the forests of Germany where they have banded together to scrape out a minimalist survival. The scene is depicted in a flashback at the beginning of Act II, establishing not only the background for Dov’s hardened fanaticism, but also the ménage a trois that forms the play’s major subplot.
The lesbian love story is yet another senseless, irrelevant issue in a tale that resembles The Hardy Boys gone awry. The fact that it stands out at all indicates the lengths to which the director Leigh Silverman goes to bring a sense of intrigue to this dull and pointless tale.
The predicament is not enhanced by most of the acting. As the central love interest, Anika, Margarita Levieva is as sophomoric as the character she plays. If she really feels anything about anyone of the characters she claims to be in love with, it would be difficult to believe. And Adam Rothenberg’s Jascha doesn’t make that any easier. The palm-sweating anxiety with which he paces back and forth throughout the first act sets up a sense of discomfort, one in which the audience can certainly share. But as Dov’s weapon of destruction, we would need to feel some empathy for him to make “The Retributionists” at least as involving as “Arsenic and Old Lace”.
In fact, Goldfarb’s drama is loosely drawn from a reported event at Stalag 13 near Nuremberg in 1946 where nineteen hundred German prisoners of war were poisoned by arsenic in their bread. Of course, the “Retributionists” of Goldfarb’s play start out with much bigger fish to fry before they land in their dithering mess of thick soup.
Unfortunately, matters are not made any better by the optimistic note of Zionism on which the play ends. Cristin Milioti delivers a convincing portrayal of Dinchka, the character who starts out as a despairing mass murderess and ends up a forgiving kibbutznik planting lemon trees in the desert. Regardless, her message leaves us empty.
If it’s intrigue you’re after, best head to “Inglorious Basterds” where you can catch Brad Pitt in a crusty performance as the Nazi killer, Lt. Aldo Raine. As the leader of a pack of Jewish avengers, Raine’s collection of scalps surpasses any reported bravura about the Allies road to victory in World War II.
Sadly, it is Quentin Tarantino’s fabulous fabrication of the evil Nazis, framing them as comic action heroes, that is a mockery of historical events. Whether or not the filmmaker intended to add credibility to those who, like Mel Gibson, deny the reality of the holocaust, he effectively has.
And whether or not Goldfarb intends to portray his militarist Jews as ridiculous or not, he has done just that. There is little defense for their vengeful plans. They do not evoke our empathy, nor cause us to see any reason to indulge their existence in the peaceful land of Palestine which Dinshka describes.
Put “The Retributionists” and “Inglorious Basterds” together, and you have a mystifying conundrum, far more problematic than simply making up words.
By: Isa Goldberg
Photos: Joan Marcus
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater
416 West 42nd Street, one block west of Ninth Avenue
runs through September 27th – Tues-Fri at 8:00pm, Sat at 2:30 & 8:00pm, and Sun at 2:30 & 7:30pm.