Writer: James Phillips
Director: Zoë Waterman
Reviewer: Dave Smith
In 1953, at the height of the McCarthy witch hunt, Jewish-American communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sent to the electric chair, convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, despite protesting their innocence to the last.
They were ultimately condemned on the evidence of Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, who was himself imprisoned for his part in the alleged conspiracy. Whether they were guilty or not is still debated. In the narrative of The Rubenstein Kiss, the question is ultimately an academic one.
James Phillips’ 2005 play is inspired by the above events, but for dramatic licence he has changed the names of the principals to Jakob and Esther Rubenstein.
Alongside the story of the couple’s early years of marriage, another young couple in love (Matthew and Anna), brought together in an art gallery by a photograph of the Rubensteins kissing while in custody, go on their own journey, their own lives and futures just as dependent on the choices made by Jakob and Esther over 20 years previously.
The play centres on the stark choice with which Jakob and Esther are presented: go against what you believe in and live; or be true to yourself and die (and in the process orphan your young child). To truly believe the choice that Jakob and Esther make, you have to believe in the passion and intensity of those beliefs. And this is where it falls down.
There’s nothing wrong with the cast; Joe Coen as Jakob exudes intellectual intensitywhile Katherine Manners makes for a passionately loyal, yet somehow disconnected Esther. Mark Field is equally fine as Esther’s brother David, caught up in events he doesn’t have the capacity to comprehend – all he wants to do is to make a home for his pregnant wife and future family. And the New York Jewish accents – to this admittedly inexpert ear – all seem on the money.
Zoë Waterman’s direction, meanwhile, manages to make what is a fairly long and very wordy play seem considerably shorter than its actual running time of 140 minutes (excluding interval).
In the first half, the focus is on the effects Jakob and Esther’s choices have on those around them, as David finds his new marriage brought under increasing pressure by his connection to Jakob’s political activity, and Matthew and Anna’s own budding relationship is threatened by a reawakening of public interest in the case and their own direct involvement in it. Given all this, there simply isn’t time to examine how and why Jakob got involved in espionage in the first place and whether Esther was complicit.
So when we reach the second act, with Jakob and Esther now in custody, we’re left with a big switch to make in terms of where to place our emotional connection. There is no lack of attempt to portray the passion the couple feel for each other; when they are able to properly touch for the first time after two years in custody, they can’t keep their hands off each other. Unfortunately, Jakob’s political conviction comes across as too coldly intellectual to make that ultimate decision one that seems either credible or one that we should actually care about.
The Rubenstein Kiss, then, is a worthy, intense and intelligent piece of work that, unfortunately, fails to deliver the emotional punch to make us examine the questions it is trying to pose.
Runs until 17 October 2015 then on tour | Image: Robert Day