Review by Sam Waite
“You can't sustain passion for years. You'd be dead.” – This retort is given towards the end of The Retreat, a play by Jason Sherman first produced in 1996. Rachel, a wannabe screenwriter, is talking about a romantic relationship, and how deep-rooted feelings are easier to keep alive than fiery passion – as is often the case with art about artists, it's also an insight into the difficulty to give one’s work a sustained energy. Both are central to The Retreat’s well-paced and well-told story.
Canadian playwright Sherman sets his story, here making its overdue UK debut at the Finborough Theatre, in then-recent 1993. Rachel is a Hebrew school teacher whose boss and confidante has encouraged her to pursue writing, and David is the well-respected producer running the titular retreat she is attending to develop her screenplay. Both living in Toronto, they board separate planes to Calgary shortly after their introductions to the audience. He, much to the chagrin of long-time professional partner Jeff, is enamoured with her work and gives it the attention and support he is refusing to throw behind the new draft of a so-so teen slasher.
It being the early ‘90s, the reference to inane horror fare focusing on valid, lifeless characters is an early example of then-topical and even clairvoyant dialogue – the slasher genre wouldn't reach the peak of its renaissance until ‘96s Scream, starring fellow Canadian Neve Campbell – which has evolved into genuinely funny period humour. How effective the plot and industry commentary were then and continues to be now is a testament to the timeless nature of Sherman’s writing – the topics are largely timeless, and the history given to the setting has only deepened the material in the following decades.
Max Rinehart succeeds at playing David as somehow charming and easy to fall for, as Rachel inevitably does, despite being pompous from the outset and increasingly irredeemable as the narrative progresses. The picture of an entitled man who feels his pursuits of creativity and love are innately more important than their impacts on others, Rinehart’s performance brings genuine emotion to the surface, making it clear that this isn't a conniving persona, but evidence that David genuinely doesn't see his infidelities or his increasing lack of professionalism as wrongdoing.
Rinehart’s match in ability but increasingly David’s subordinate in romance and in their craft, Jill Winternitz does phenomenal work as Rachel. Palpable chemistry between Rachel and David builds largely from Winternitz’s ability to convey a genuine crush forming in real time, and how adeptly she sells the character’s increasingly limp resistance to his charm. Rachel’s characterisation is also where designer Alys Whitehead does some of her strongest work – though her skirt has a side-slit, it is still down to her ankles and paired with a long-sleeved turtleneck. Early dialogue shows that this is a modern, forward-thinking woman, but the conservative wardrobe reflects the traditional values she was raised with.
Wolf Benjamin, Rachel’s ailing father and an immigrant from Israel, is brought to stunning, moving life by Jonathan Tafler. Balancing out the romantic and professional drama with his hysterical line deliveries and tugging at heartstrings with his delicate, finely tuned relationship with Rachel in act one, my main criticism of the script would be his limited presence in act two. Still, when he does make a short appearance, he dominates the scene even when others are speaking – perhaps the finest acting on show comes when he is in the background of a confrontation between Rachel and David, with Wolf’s physical state and difficulty breathing mirroring their fraught relationship.
Rounding out a universally strong cast with another scene stealing performance is fellow producer Jeff, Michael Feldsher playing the character as a snarky antihero. Keeping the frustration of 15 years working with a man like David, and of playing along with his constant mistreatment of others for the sake of keeping his talent on-side, Feldsher brings real heart and soul to what could easily become a one-note antagonist. Despite years of having his life made miserable, it's clear throughout that Jeff genuinely cares about David, and doesn't want to see Rachel hurt.
It won't surprise you to hear that Emma Jude Harris, directing this European premiere, has brought out the very best in her small cast. She has also made excellent use of the minimal, shockingly effective set – Alys Whitehead has pulled together a small collection of chairs, a small desk, and a typewriter. Moved around by the cast between scenes in awkward transitions of semi-darkness, these pieces effectively form a handful of different spaces. Unfortunately, seeing the actors move the furniture becomes somewhat of a distraction, though necessary for resetting the scene, and I began to wonder if I might have preferred a continuous arrangement and scene changes being signalled more subtly.
More effective and used sparingly to not dull their impact, are projections designed by Cheng Keng and Adam Lenson. Silhouettes of trees quickly set an outdoor scene, while overlapping text evoke how lost Rachel is getting in revising her screenplay. Aside from the too-frequent stretches of darkness between scenes, Ben Jacobs helps greatly in setting up where we are at key moments with his lighting. One of the final scenes, set in Jeff’s office as he fields a call from a difficult, barely talented writer, the light becomes momentarily overwhelming in how striking and clinical it becomes.
Able to transcend its period and blossom into something equally insightful, if not more so, I would question how it took this long (27 years! This site has contributors younger than this play!) for The Retreat to receive a European premiere, if the evidence didn’t suggest that the work was simply fated to reach the hands of this cast and director. Emma Jude Harris, along with her cast and the rest of the creative team have crafted, though not always perfect, a well-paced (2 hours and 45 minutes and it didn’t drag once) and emotionally balanced production, and done right by Jason Sherman’s still-relevant text.
The Retreat plays at the Finborough Theatre until May 13th.
For tickets and information, visit https://finboroughtheatre.co.uk/production/the-retreat/#production-tickets-times
Photos by Ali Wright