Edgar and Alice are soon to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary. What would constitute an appropriate gift? Arsenic? Cyanide? A neatly sharpened saber? Never has marriage seemed more devilishly injurious than in August Strindberg’s 1900 The Dance of Death, newly adapted by Mike Poulton and presented in an involving production by Red Bull at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Strindberg knew something about bad marriages–he wed three times, each one disastrous–and no other playwright (not Shakespeare, not Ibsen, not Albee) presented the nuptial state as so gleefully toxic.
Edgar (Daniel Davis) is an artillery captain, Alice (Laila Robbins) a former actresss. Together, they pass their days in a military installation on an island just off the coast of mainland Sweden. Alice describes their union as “25 years of misery, a quarter-century of suffering,” and the crossed swords above the lintel (courtesy Beowulf Boritt’s set) seem to typify it. Their children, both weapons and casualties in this never-ending skirmish, have long since been sent to boarding school. So they’re eager for new cannon fodder, and find it in the arrival of the helplessly moral Gustav (Derek Smith), Alice’s cousin and former flame.
Under Joseph Hardy’s fleet direction, Robbins, her blond hair snaked into an imperious pile, plays a neat trick with Alice, working on our sympathies until we realize she practices domestic violence just as fiercely as her spouse. Davis finds rather less nuance in Edgar, though he rallies for the final scene. And if Smith appears stiff at first, his descent into corruption at his cousin’s hands is deftly played. Poulton’s adaptation is lucid, if occasionally vulgar, though it might have benefited from a few first-act cuts.
Strindberg’s feat, which Hardy nicely elucidates, is the revelation that Edgar and Alice enjoy their mutual assured destruction. Emotional bloodsport sustains them. Indeed, Strindberg had a favorite metaphor for the tender bonds between husband and wife, which he often deploys here: vampirism. Oh, if he’d ever gotten his hands on the Twilight scripts, how much more erotic and entertaining a franchise it might have been.