Daniel Davis, Laila Robins and Derek Smith in THE DANCE OF DEATH. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: A skillful production of a relentlessly pessimistic (if sometimes amusing) classic of the twentieth-century theater.
The title gets straight to the point: The Dance of Death is heavy stuff. However, there’s also a vein of absurdity running through it that some may experience as dark humor. Whether Swedish audiences who saw its premiere in 1909 found it as amusing as modern viewers are apt to, who knows; in any case, they made it a hit, despite the fact that playwright August Strindberg was forced to produce it himself, the script having been rejected by all the major theaters. What once was considered radical is now part of the canon, which is where Red Bull Theater, the company currently staging Dance of Death off Broadway, comes in.
Red Bull made its name producing disturbing (and often bloody) dramas from the age of Shakespeare, including the Bard’s late play Pericles, Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. More recently, the company ventured into the twentieth century with Jean Genet’s The Maids, another piece preoccupied with twisted desires and murderous violence. The Dance of Death continues the theme, though in Strindberg’s world the violence is done primarily through words and mind games. It depicts a few short days in the life of a long-married couple living on an island in a house that was once a prison...and if that sounds miserable, wait until they start talking.
The Dance of Death feels like the love child of Sartre's No Exit and Albee's Virginia Woolf, even though it predates both its parents by several decades. The wretched couple, army officer Edgar and former actress Alice, openly mock and insult each other from the play's first moments, arguing about money, their children, his colleagues, her taste in music, and on and on. They complain that their neighbors don't like them and their servants always quit. The one thing they seem to look forward to is a visit from Alice's cousin, Custav, with whom they used to be quite close but whose life seems to have gone off the rails, leading to a break with his wife and a sojourn to (gasp!) America. However, even their feelings about him seem to fluctuate wildly from moment to moment — first he is a dear friend, then a weakling, and finally a traitor. When Gustav arrives, he is taken aback at the open hostility displayed in the house; can it be long before that anger envelopes him as well?
Red Bull has been blessed to have a number of New York theater heavyweights appear in their productions, and this one is no exception. Daniel Davis, a stage veteran best known as Niles on TV’s “The Nanny,” plays Edgar as a man whose body is failing but whose lifelong bitterness keeps him going. Laila Robins, who has racked up more great reviews on and off Broadway than you can shake a stick at, plays Alice, an actress who may have left the stage but has never stopped playing a role. As Gustav, Tony-nominee Derek Smith seems almost to know that he is no match for his frantic cousin and her pitiless husband from the moment he arrives. That may be how director Joseph Hardy (a Tony winner many moons ago) wants it, but if he’s going to be brought into the ring, why not let him get a few real jabs in?
Writer Mike Poulton has done a number of well-regarded adaptations of stage classics on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean; he has definitely left his own stamp on Strindberg’s text, despite the production’s quite traditional period costumes and sets — cutting and renaming characters, adding more conversational touches to the dialogue (including some profanity), and restoring elements from early drafts that the playwright himself later removed. The result is a Dance of Death that continues the mission Red Bull Theater has set for itself: treat old plays as if they were new. It’s not avant-garde, but it is edgy and alive. It might even be a black comedy. Like the danse macabre, it’s a strange expression of the creative impulse bursting through the darkness of mortality.
(The Dance of Death plays at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Hudson Streets, through May 4, 2013. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30PM; Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM; and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are $10-$75 and are available at redbulltheater.com or by calling 212.352.3101.)