Renaming Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed in June 1953 for “conspiracy to commit espionage,” does nothing to obscure the identity of Esther and Jakob Rubenstein in British playwright James Phillips’ “The Rubenstein Kiss.” Nearly every particular of the fictional Rubensteins’ story exactly parallels those of the historical Rosenbergs, from the pride Julius felt that Ethel had gotten fired after leading a strike, to the blood they exchanged through a prison screen that separated them just before they were electrocuted.
Yet as if the Rosenbergs’ plight was not dramatic or wrenching enough, playwright Phillips frames it with an awkward love story some two decades later that injects an unnecessary and distracting creepiness into the proceedings. These same two characters could have served the same thematic purpose without the off-putting implications of their subplot.
Kal Poole plays Jakob with an understated simmer to Kim Garrison Hopcraft’s softer, warmer Esther. Together, they are convincing as a passionate couple who would sacrifice the personal for the political. As David Girshfeld, Geoffrey Martin evolves smoothly from Esther’s fawning younger brother into her betrayer. Julia Free makes a strong impression as David’s wife, Rachel. And Acacia Leigh Duncan and Rudy Frias do the best they can with Phillips’ manufactured melodrama without succumbing to it.
The North American premiere, this joint CATCO and Gallery Players production of “The Rubenstein Kiss” boasts admirable performances in a flawed but thoughtful vehicle about devotion and its consequences.