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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Rubenstein Kiss

I am cloaked in purpose.
---- Matthew Rubenstein
The Rubenstein Kiss
Image from Hampstead Theatre
A Jewish couple's relationship is haunted by demons from the past. The original tragedy, whose consequences threaten them, unfolds in the same space. The action shifts back and forth between two very different decades, a piece of furniture is the crucial link between them. But this is not Losing Louis, the Hampstead's previous comedy hit which used similar themes and devices. This is the tragic story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg retold as The Rubenstein Kiss.

This is strong and still controversial material, re-named so that a fictional element can be added. It is 1975 and Matthew (Martin Hutson) and Anna (Louisa Clein) meet in a New York gallery as they study a photograph of the doomed Rubensteins' last kiss, snatched on their way from the court that convicted them. The young people bond immediately and strongly. It doesn't take us long to see that their past and their fate are also bound together. The eponymous Rubensteins are the parents Matthew never knew, executed at the height of the McCarthy witch hunts when he was a toddler. Matthew still talks to his father across the family's kitchen table, a symbol of family warmth and continuity. Belief in his father's innocence is the anchor of his identity while certainty of her own father's guilt gnaws at the heart of Anna's. Will they survive the truths that lurk in the past?

Act 1 painstakingly constructs the back-story from 1942 to 1950. We meet Jakob (Will Keen) and Ethel (Samantha Bond) -- a couple whose relationship is also a potent brew of the political and erotic. Their lives entwine with her Ordinary Joe brother David (Alan Cox) and his fiancée Rachel (Emily Bruni). The spirit of Arthur Miller hangs over these tenement scenes -- indeed, he is name-checked several times, which is perilously close to hubris since one misses his gift for momentum. The action only quickens at the very end, by which time both cast and audience are suffering exposition drag, something like driving for 90 minutes with the handbrake on.

Act 2 in which both stories move towards their climax has more of the pace, focus and emotional power needed. While Martin Hutton and Louisa Clein as the young lovers, look and -- mostly -- sound their parts, unfortunately for them their big scene is played against that of Samantha Bond and Will Keen as the condemned parents in the very shadow of the electric chair. Matthew and Anna's problems cannot help but seem trivial in comparison.

The Rubenstein Kiss has an uneasy relationship with the actuality of the Rosenberg case. The Rubenstein's politics are mentioned, but the complexities of their commitment are not explored and this leaves odd gaps in the dramatic logic; for example, both Esther and Jakob seem unaware that they have a child until the eve of their execution. These parts are compellingly played, but cannot shed light on the Rubenstein's motives or the extent of their guilt. The historical context is lightly sketched, with the judicial apparatus of the state is personified in Gary Kemp's inscrutable FBI agent. Compared with the Rosenberg thread of Angels in America, with its believably complex monster Roy Cohn, Kiss seems a little thin.

While the end of the play is moving, as it must be, for me The Rubenstein Kiss was curiously muted because its focus is unclear. It is like a group photograph in which everyone is staring at the real subject, which is out of the frame. Arguably this play is about Matthew and his struggle to become a man in the absence of a father. Blameless like Oedipus, he suffers the consequences of another's actions. But since we are told nothing about his life from 1953 to 1975 he never really comes alive, despite Martin Hutton's best efforts. The collision of real and invented worlds is awkward rather than harmonious.

Liz Ascroft provides a powerful set for these tragedies and the cast is exemplary in following James Phillips' direction. He ensures that every word, phrase and sentence is given its due weight. But this is understandable since he also wrote them. Another director might have given the piece greater impact by excising some of the more portentous, prosaic and discursive passages. A summary of the plot of Madame Butterfly and a mini-lecture on the Venona Transcripts only detract from the power of the drama. Less usually means more, and not just in Harold Pinter's plays. And Pinter is perhaps the only writer who can be trusted to direct his own work.

Written and directed by James Phillips

Starring: Samantha Fox, Will Keen
With: Martin Hutson, Louisa Clein, Alan Cox, Emily Bruni, Gary Kemp
Design: Liz Ascroft
Lighting: Hartley T A Kemp
Sound: Neil Alexander
Running time: Two hours forty minutes with one interval
In association with Stanhope Productions
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking 17th December 2005
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 23rd November 2005 at the Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage, London NW3 (Tube: Hampstead)
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