Alice and Edgar, the long-married, long-embittered couple at the center of August Strindberg’s turn-of-the-20th-century drama “The Dance of Death,” are the prototypes of the acid-tongued Martha and George in Edward Albee’s 1962 classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
They seem trapped in a claustrophobic stew of their own making — one that has chased away both their school-aged children and all of the domestic help. But theirs is a tricky relationship to play on stage, as evidenced in a new revival at Off Broadway’s Classic Stage Company that never seems to find its footing or the right tone. (The show plays in repertory with a new production of Strindberg’s “Mies Julie.”)
Richard Topol’s Edgar is the captain of an isolated garrison off the coast of Sweden whose imperious attitude has made him wildly unpopular, including with his own wife, a former actress (Cassie Beck). Her sole companion seems to be her husband — until the arrival of her decidedly more successful cousin and former lover, Gustav (Christopher Innvar), who almost instantly diagnoses their relationship: “hate and love forged together in the foundry of hell.”
Conor McPherson has adapted Strindberg’s play in plain-spoken English which makes the most of the play’s barbed Scandinavian wit. But the challenge for director Victoria Clark is the same that has plagued all who tackle this tricky story: Do you play it for tragedy or comedy, melodrama or farce?
Except for a few moments of stylized choreography between scenes to suggest the “dance” that is about to unfold, Clark’s cast leans toward naturalism. This deprives the play of some of its comedic power, alas, and it leads Beck to underplay Alice’s theatricality. She is a former actress, after all, but you seldom see that spark of play-acting for either her husband or for Gustav, her one realistic avenue of escape.
Nor do you fully understand what keeps Alice bound to a marriage she describes as “our long miserable mistake.” She tries to explain it to Kurt at one point: “We are bound by some evil force. Something only death may dissolve. So we wait for death.”
This is a level of abstraction that makes “The Dance of Death” a tricky play to pull off — how do you dramatize an “evil force” that keeps the central characters rooted to a relationship that is obviously rotten for them both? Even Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren struggled in a 2001 Broadway revival.
Despite their best efforts, Clark and her talented cast aren’t able to resolve this play’s many contradictions. But there are pleasures to be found in the twisted pas de deux between two lovers who may be better matched than they would ever care to admit.