The Retributionists’ Margarita Levieva on Jewish Revenge and Being Lisa P.

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Photo: Joan Marcus

Since Margarita Levieva made our list of Most Beautiful New Yorkers in 2006, the Russian-born gymnast turned actress has been proving she’s more than just a pretty face. Recently, she appeared in Impressionism on Broadway and Spread onscreen — and, most memorably, as hot amusement-park-ride operator Lisa P. in Adventureland. Now she stars as Anika, a Jewish freedom fighter seeking revenge on the Germans after World War II, in the romantic thriller The Retributionists, opening tonight at Playwrights Horizons. We caught up with Levieva to talk about her first major stage role.

What appealed to you about the role of Anika?
When I first read the script, I was just sort of stunned. It’s such a complicated story — this internal conflict of what does one do when they survive such a horrific event such as the Holocaust, having lost her whole family? What does one do with that? And do they proceed and go forward with their life? So for me, just her complexity and drive and determination and strength and vulnerability and sensuality — she just embodies so many great qualities that I thought it would be a very challenging, and yet very interesting, character to play.

What type of research did you do for the role?
Well, you know, I did all the good-girl research. I read a lot of Holocaust books and more books about the Avengers and other groups at the time that were sort of like the Retributionists. And then just some personal research that I do whenever I feel like a character reminds me of someone or something. I read a book about Joan of Arc because I think there is that singleness of purpose that they share. I read the personal diaries of women from the war also. I actually reread The Dangerous Liaisons because I feel like some of the aspects of her and Merteuil’s character are similar in singleness of purpose, the thing that one does in the achieving of this one goal.

The playwright, Daniel Goldfarb, has said that he knows essentially what they’re doing is plotting a terrorist act and yet his heart is still with them. Do you feel the same?
It’s interesting, because I’m so in this character right now and to me it’s justified so I don’t even look at it as a terrorist act. I’m not looking at it from the outside in. I mean, it makes complete sense, but I guess I can’t look at it in that way. Just because she doesn’t see it that way — it’s just revenge makes total sense, it’s not a terrorist act, it’s just the way it works. But, yeah, absolutely, it is a terrorist act.

You grew up as a Jewish girl in Russia. How close to home does this material hit for you?
It’s certainly very close to home because the Holocaust is just a very sensitive issue for me. My grandmothers were in St. Petersburg during the blockade and they were little girls then. And my grandparents have lost their fathers and brothers in the war. I know a lot about the Holocaust, and I was actually pretty surprised. I didn’t know that story existed.

A friend remarked to me at intermission that she was surprised how sexual the play is. What are those scenes like for you?
You know, it’s really funny because I had friends come also, and they’re like, “Wow, you make out with everyone in the play.” But because I am so concentrated on achieving my goals and that’s part of it, I don’t even see it. You know, it’s like when I’m in a scene with someone, I’m so focused on getting what I want or need from them that if that comes into play, then that’s what happens. When I move to the next scene, I’m not thinking that I just made out with someone in the scene before. I mean, these people are hungry, and they’re hungry for different things — revenge, life, desire. And desire for one another is something also that I think they all share, that sort of instinctual animalistic kind of thirst and hunger. And again, how do you they all deal with it after surviving the war? I mean, yeah, at first we’re giggling, like, “I have to kiss you,” but I do think sexuality is just one way she knows how to connect or manipulate. The other thing to remember is they’re also kids. They never got to live out those teenage years and have a childhood in that sense. She’s 21. And in the woods, she and Dinchka are 18, so it’s that time. [Laughs]

It’s interesting that this and Inglorious Basterds opened at the same time. Why do you think writers are turning toward this theme of revenge?
I mean, it’s certainly a coincidence that they got released the same day we had our first preview. But I think the theme of revenge is something that we as humans have explored through the times. And it’s certainly in our play, the themes of revenge, of feeling justified to fight over a loss of one’s family, one’s people. When is it okay? When is it not okay? And I think so much of it relates, unfortunately, to some of the problems that we’re dealing with today with terrorist acts, with the problems in Israel. And especially with the way the play ends, it’s like it never stops. It’s a perpetual dilemma.

On a very different note, I think a lot of people probably now know you as Lisa P. from Adventureland. I read you didn’t think you were the right person to play that part.
Right, it was a little challenging. I was so grateful to be working with Greg [Mottola], and the cast was fantastic, but I’d never done a comedy before. She didn’t have a lot of funny lines — it was more about who she is that’s so funny to the audience. But most of my scenes were with Jesse [Eisenberg] and he’s just so funny and quirky, so I always felt like I wasn’t doing enough. And as far as me feeling like I wasn’t right for the role, I think it was just because when I read that opening sequence and Lisa P.’s back and every guy in the park is just falling all over himself, drooling, like I really don’t know if I’m that girl, you know? I didn’t see it. Greg did. [Laughs]

Did it make you want to do more comedy?
Yeah, certainly, definitely, because before I think I kind of shied away from it. But I’ll be excited to do more comedy. After I finish the Holocaust play.