The death of Arthur Miller has left a gap in the market for politicised drama on epic American themes. But James Phillips’s attempt to fill that breach with his first play inevitably suffers from the comparison. Arthurian nods abound: the sins of the father, ‘Reds under the bed’ hysteria, Marilyn Monroe. (At one point a character even quotes verbatim from The Crucible.)
The Rubenstein Kiss, which Phillips perhaps unwisely directs himself, feels hemmed in by these signifiers, unable to forge an identity of its own between respectful homage and slavish imitation.
The case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the husband-and-wife spies executed in 1953 for leaking atomic secrets to the Russians, remains a contentious cause célèbre worthy of dramatic exploration. Phillips does so by inventing his own Rosenbergs, Jakob and Esther Rubenstein, whose bogus history mirrors their real-life counterparts all the way to the electric chair.
In scenes spanning 1942 to 1953, industrial engineer Jakob (Will Keen) and his wife Esther (Samantha Bond) are shown taking in her brother David (Alan Cox), only to see him betray their espionage activities to the authorities. Their scenes are crosscut with a parallel narrative unfolding in 1975, in which a law student (Martin Hutson) and a young history teacher (Louisa Clein) become romantically entwined as they set out to establish the Rubensteins’ posthumous innocence.
The connecting tissue between these parallel tales relies on a coincidence so unlikely it almost takes down the play with it, while Liz Ashcroft’s sparse set, dominated by the ugly façade of a three-storey New York tenement, is an eyesore almost as harmful.
In Keen’s Jakob, however, it has a compelling and contradictory figure whose fervent idealism seems fuelled by the passion he feels for his no less committed partner. “Our ideas are more important than our lives,” he tells Gary Kemp’s implacable FBI man. “Our ideas outlive us.” But in a touching climax where Keen and Bond share one last moment through a prison grill, the playwright movingly calculates the human price of political martyrdom.
Scenes as effective like this one, however, are thin on the ground in an overlong piece whose commendable ambition does not excuse its lack of momentum and uncertainty of purpose.