Just as the brutal Russian winter beat back Napolean's advancing forces, Broadway's winter doldrums—coupled with the scheduling constraints of the play's stars—sped along Retreat's end. The show opened on Oct. 23, 2003, to a cool review from the New York Times, though the play found supporters at the New York Post, the New Yorker magazine and other publications.
Though the drama's ruminative and regretful tone and John Lee Beatty's branch-strewn set are Chekhovian in tone, the title of Nicholson's play has nothing to do with the metropolis to which Chekhov's three sisters longed to travel. Rather, it refers to Napoleon's horribly costly invasion of Russia, in which the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers were lost. Lithgow's character, the reticent Edward, is reading a book on the subject, and the army's retreat becomes a metaphor for his ruptured marriage to Alice, played by Eileen Atkins.
Alice is an exacting and opinionated woman who is preparing a new anthology of poetry, the largest chapter of which is titled "Lost Love." Soon she discovers that lost is just the word for her husband's love and their 33-year marriage. Edward is a mild, repressed teacher who likes nothing better than to do his daily crossword and wishes his wife would stop exhorting him to talk to her and examine their marriage. Matters come to a head when Edward meets another woman and works up the courage to leave Alice. The decision floors his wife, an observant Catholic who equates divorce with murder. Meanwhile, their son, played by Ben Chaplin, tries to remain strong while his family's foundation crumbles.
The spare play—which calls for only a few pieces of furniture and an artful use of lighting—is partly based on the breakup of the British Nicholson's own parents. Dan Sullivan directs.