A Night at the Theater With Aunt Edna and the Glums

Never underestimate the fortitude of the middle classes of England. Though they appear to be half-dead, they stoically endure. In their innately repressed way, they survive by bloodlessly appearing to have no emotion. Emotion frightens the horses. You must deduce what the reticent middle-class Englishman is thinking from what he doesn’t say. Should a massive earthquake take place, for example, in the immaculate back garden of his proudly suburban home, the master of the house will set aside his crossword puzzle for a moment and surely remark, “That’s a bit odd. Let’s put the kettle on and have a nice cuppa tea.”

The unshakable middle classes of England are the resilient backbone of the country itself. They are an island nation accustomed to drizzle. By rainy temperament, they like nothing more than a good moan; it cheers everyone up. They are the masters of survival in gloomy defeat. As I recall from my own English childhood, there used to be a BBC radio family known as the Glums. The Glums were-well, glum. They were-to put it the understated English way-somewhat on the glum side. They were very popular. I thought they were dead. They’re back!

Now, how the Glums ended up on Broadway only goes to prove that the middle-class miseries of England can’t be killed off. They rise like the phoenix. No power on earth has ever been able to rid the English stage of them, and now they’ve hopped the pond to be with us again in William Nicholson’s wan domestic saga, The Retreat from Moscow , at the Booth. This is very good news if you wish to have a nice long doze at the theater. The seasonal burst of Anglophilia is underway, and the Glums, I’m happy to report, are as glum as ever.

They come with a cultural gloss that pleases the unchallenged theatergoer who was famously defined by Terence Rattigan as Aunt Edna. The Retreat from Moscow is an elderly, somewhat doddering relative of Rattigan’s 1940’s and 50’s dramas of tortured romantic tragedy, The Browning Version and The Deep Blue Sea . Aunt Edna was Rattigan’s beloved ideal theatergoer, and he came to regret his role in her immaculate conception as the conscience of English theater. He described her, without irony, as “a nice respectable, middle-aged lady,” “a hopeless lowbrow” who Knows What She Likes.

Aunt Edna personifies everything contentedly shallow about the bourgeois theater of England. That the smug old broad still appears to be breathing is a miracle. The Retreat from Moscow ‘s patina of “class” and “quality”-like the English box of chocolates named Quality Street nestling in Aunt Edna’s lap-is meant to divert us from the sleepy, unsurprising ritual actually happening onstage. Alice, the wronged, thoroughly middle-class heroine of The Retreat from Moscow , is thus a poetry lover given to reciting poetry to a hushed silence (Robert Frost, George Herbert, Rossetti, etc.). The poems are intended to elevate Mr. Nicholson’s overfamiliar lowbrow saga into a highbrow elegy by filling in the gaps.

If not poetry, historic metaphor: In the opening scene, Edward-the beaten hero of the play, a history teacher teetering wearily on the edge of retirement-reads a passage from a scholarly book about the mortal price paid by Napoleon’s troops during their retreat from Moscow in 1812. Aha! Edward-we know it, and he knows it-is about to retreat from his doomed marriage in order to survive, like Napoleon’s troops. And so, in his lumbering metaphorical way, he does.

Mr. Nicholson’s better-known play of tragic love, Shadowlands , was set in an Oxford college and decked out culturally, too. By telling the story of the spinsterish Christian C.S. Lewis and his love affair with a dying New York Jewish poet, the playwright managed to combine the pretty shameless soap opera of Shadowlands with ecumenicalism, donnish discourse and that reliable old walk-on, God. You were meant to have a good cry, in a spiritual sort of way. But I remember the 1990 Broadway production principally for Nigel Hawthorne, a great British actor belatedly in the glorious making. The late Hawthorne joyfully carried the play, but I’m afraid that with The Retreat from Moscow , even the beady intelligence of the estimable Dame Eileen Atkins, as well as the skills of her co-stars, John Lithgow and the British movie actor Ben Chaplin, can’t save it from sinking into the glums.

The play’s crossword-loving historian, Edward the Dull (Mr. Lithgow), who likes a nice, soothing cuppa whenever possible, eventually confesses the agonized news to Alice the Drab (Ms. Atkins), his poetry-spouting wife of 30 or a hundred years, that he’s fallen in love with Another Woman who doesn’t mind him doing crossword puzzles. Jamie the Grim (Mr. Chaplin), their woebegone son, who’s already turning humorlessly into his dry stick of a dad, gets upset, but not too much.

God comes on early, after Napoleon and Robert Frost. “You can say you don’t believe in God till you’re blue in the face,” churchgoing Alice argues with her agnostic son. “But He’s still there.” He is indeed. He’s looking down on Broadway thinking, “I prefer musicals.” “I’d better not let my bath get cold,” Jamie the Grim announces, closing the debate about why God allows a world that’s “full of miserable, starving, tortured, crippled people.” “He gave us free will,” Dad the Dull explains, drifting back to his crossword puzzle, glad to be out of it, glad to bury himself in tired suburban banality.

“I’m tired, too,” Alice the Drab tells him later. “But we can’t go on like this. This isn’t the life I want. Is this the life you want?”

“Not exactly,” says Dad.

“Then do something about it …. You see, I just can’t bear what’s happening to us any longer.”

“I’m tired. I want to go bed. We’ll talk about it in the morning,” Dad says when the bickering begins all over again. But Mother Knows Best. The play has a number of weaknesses, though none is more serious than the unequal war between the parents. Obviously, Dad is no day at the beach, but I’ve a feeling the playwright wants us to believe that Alice is really an adorable “personality,” an eccentric free spirit missing a passionate life. The problem is that almost everything out of her mouth conjures up the small-minded picture of a belittling nightmare nag. She has a mediocre mind. She resents her lot. She blackmails her retreating husband in the name of love. When he summons up the courage to tell her at last that he’s leaving, who among us doesn’t think, “Finally! And God’s speed!”

If it’s John Lee Beatty, it’s trees. Mr. Beatty’s set for Retreat from Moscow is characterized by his customary forest, though here the branches are dry and bare as a bone, appearing to envelop the anonymous, sterile sitting room. Is the barren landscape possibly, by any chance, another metaphor? Are the dead trees the Glums? But was the marriage of Edward and the now half-mad Lucy ever juicy in the first place? As Dad the Dull rationalizes philosophically in his own mesmerizing fashion: He got on the wrong train, and now he’s got off the train. And to that I say, “God’s speed, Edward! And good luck!” The evening is directed by Daniel Sullivan at a slow, stately pace, lest Aunt Edna miss anything as she dips hopefully into her box of Quality Street for one last, comforting chockie.