August Strindberg’s Dance of Death can hardly be considered your typical Broadway crowd-pleaser. Yet this nihilistic battle of the sexes has been oddly popular with big-shot New York producers. Obviously, tourists and TKTS lines have nothing to do with the revivals. (“Honey, are you more in the mood for a musical or some Scandinavian angst?”) Two famous productions in the ’70s—Rip Torn and Viveca Lindfors’s 1971 battle royale and Robert Shaw and Zoë Caldwell’s 1974 brawl—point to the play’s attraction for leading actors. With its histrionic husband and wife combatants, Dance of Death rejoices in what the poet Robert Lowell once described as “the woe that is in marriage.” To counteract the play’s possible depressive effects, the current all-star Anglo-American version (headlined by Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, and David Strathairn) strenuously tries to find the humor in the darkness. But the breathless, comic approach (imagine Albee’s Martha and George as characters on a BBC sitcom) only deepens the gloom.
Whatever you do, don’t blame crazy-genius Strindberg, who already has enough trouble with his mug plastered on academic feminists’ hit lists. While his women may be lethal bloodsuckers, his men have a vampiric streak all their own. Long before Sartre, Strindberg defined hell as other people. “I find the joy of life in its cruel and powerful struggles,” he admitted in his trenchant, irreplaceable preface to Miss Julie, which helped pave the aesthetic way for his amoral playwriting—a dramatic vision in opposition to the simplistic value judgments and crude techniques of melodrama. Rejecting the notion of absolute virtue and villainy, he created characters who don’t fully understand the calculus of their own brutal actions. “Perhaps the time will come when we will be so advanced, so enlightened, that we can witness with indifference what now seems the coarse, cynical, heartless drama life has to offer,” the playwright wrote with characteristic Nietzschean aplomb.
But while modern audiences may have finally caught up with Strindberg’s scathing complexity, his inventive dramatic style still challenges our literal-minded sensibilities. On the surface, Dance of Death resembles the naturalism of Strindberg’s The Father (1887), which presents another middle-class household engulfed in domestic combat. But written 13 years and several nervous breakdowns later, Dance of Death offers realism that’s inflected with the symbolism of Maeterlinck. True, the play’s foggy island residence has fixed coordinates that make it more than just an unsettling vision. Yet it’s important to bear in mind that the flamboyant expressionism of A Dream Play (1901) was little more than a year away, and that the author was heading toward the spooky magnificence of The Ghost Sonata (1907), where the real and the surreal hold equal sway.
Director Sean Mathias treats Dance of Death as though it were merely an eccentric English drawing-room comedy, albeit one with a nasty mean streak. There’s simply not enough recognition that the play’s form is nearly as strange as its content. The ongoing skirmishes between Captain Edgar and his retired actress wife Alice—who live in a military fortress on an island aptly known as “little hell”—have a never ending quality that anticipates the circular structure of Waiting for Godot; the aging couple fight to pass the time the way Didi and Gogo horse around with their hats.
Part of the problem is Santo Loquasto’s ugly set, which spells everything out in lumbering Gothic detail. Even the peripheral outdoor world, which encroaches on the household like a foreboding of death, receives the same clunkily furnished treatment. The actors aren’t so much locked into their claustrophobic struggle as saddled with a creepy design concept that seems ripe for a Bela Lugosi cameo.
Bearing the entire burden of this stiff, unfluid production (the very antithesis of Ingmar Bergman’s gorgeous nightmare staging of The Ghost Sonata presented last summer at BAM), the cast have no choice but to act for their very lives. McKellen’s hammy, outsize performance as the Captain infuses the production with the kind of macabre wit Laurence Olivier reportedly brought to the role. Whether breaking into a Hungarian jig or gleefully delivering one of his poisonous patriarchal barbs, McKellen never fails to hold our flagging attention—even if he must occasionally resort to theatrical gunpoint. While Mirren can’t match his upstaging intensity, she has a grave feminine aura that makes her Alice a formidable opponent—one who wields silence like a club. The rest of the company—including Strathairn as the old friend helplessly tangled in the couple’s tug-of-war—can’t help getting lost in the horror-flick woodwork.
While Neil LaBute shares Strindberg’s warped view of human relations, the emerging American playwright and filmmaker has a slick attitude rather than a resonant philosophy. To set the shrill tone of his new play, The Shape of Things, LaBute—remounting his London production—has Smashing Pumpkins music blare at ear-splitting volume during the scene changes. Such a strategy of assault, however, is redundant when you have an actress as stereophonically grating as Rachel Weisz playing a role as half-baked as that of Evelyn, a graduate fine-arts student who terrorizes a campus with her stridently facile theories about culture. Evelyn’s chief victim is a shy and laggard undergraduate named Adam (a genial if somewhat monotonous Paul Rudd), who unwittingly becomes the subject of Evelyn’s thesis project (think of it as a wormy apple from the Tree of Knowledge). Suffice it to say that a little sexual attention goes a long way toward controlling this hard-up schlub, who undergoes a complete physical makeover at the expense of his moral bearings.
LaBute’s plot points are as phony as they are manipulative. Every detail—from the superficial aspects of campus life to Adam’s inexplicably afforded nose job—requires an excuse pass from the author. Worse, his characters don’t so much transform as grow louder. As Adam’s romantically linked friends, Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller are convincing enough, though the more they’re sucked into the machinery of LaBute’s parable, the less recognizable they become. The Shape of Things strives for profundity, though its biblical proclamations about art and love are inadequately earned. Ideas funneled into a story in the final act may provoke discussion, but they’ll never have the power of truth wrought from genuine struggle.