The Rubenstein Kiss

James Phillips
Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

The Kiss

Life, they say, is stranger than fiction, and it’s amazing how a chance encounter can lead you on a totally different path.

Phillips was not a playwright until he came by chance across a picture of a couple kissing in the back of a police van. Wanting to know more of their story, his investigations led him to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, a couple believed to be passing nuclear secrets to the Russians, and who were sent to the electric chair in 1953 protesting their innocence to the end.

Here was the basis for a good story, but no one else would take it up, so Philllips simply wrote it himself and launched on a new career as a playwright—a pretty good story in itself.

Strange too is the coincidence that Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a play concerning The Salem Witch Hunt, opened on Broadway the same year, and Phillips has drawn a lot of parallels between the two events, while changing the names of the chief characters to allow ‘artistic licence’, although the fact that it’s based on truth gives a little added frisson in the telling.

The play begins in the 1970s with a male law student and female history teacher meeting in front of the iconic picture, discovering that they are related to each other as well as the protagonists, and determining to investigate the events which led to the execution and get to the truth.

Switching back to the '40s and '50s we find the ‘Rubensteins’, Jakob (Joe Coen) and Esther (Katherine Manners), a devoted Jewish-American couple and part of a very close-knit family which includes Esther’s brother David (Mark Field) and his fiancée Rachel (Ellie Burrows). Ironically, it is the evidence of the brother which finally convicts them, something which splits the family apart and affects the Jewish community as a whole.

Were they or were they not guilty? Was their downfall the result of McCarthy hysteria at the time of the Cold War which overzealously tracked down suspects, or were they traitors and a danger to the country? The play is so skilfully and powerfully constructed that the young couple’s investigation keeps the audience fully involved and on tenterhooks from beginning to end.

Joe Coen’s Jakob is like a coiled spring, intense and obviously driven by an idealism which he believes in totally, while Katherine Manners, as Esther, is softer but with an air of slightly troubled resignation as she goes about her housework singing snatches the final tragic aria from Madame Butterfly.

Does this echo her apprehension of approaching tragedy, or is it simply the beauty of the music? (Wonderful voice too.) Her devotion to her husband is obvious and the final touching of hands through the prison mesh between them just before the execution is overwhelmingly moving.

The multiple strands of the story are very cleverly interwoven, and performances are outstanding, convincing and poignant. Excellent work from the young couple Simon Haines and Gillian Saker as they uncover more conflicting evidence, and Mark Field and Ellie Burrow, the brother and wife whose survival is infused with guilt. Also FBI interrogator Cornell S John manages authoritative, threatening and sympathetic almost all at the same time.

A long play, but kept at a cracking pace by director Zoe Waterman and very highly recommended.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor