Theater review by Helen Shaw. Lucille Lortel Theatre (see Off Broadway). By August Strindberg. Dir. Joseph Hardy. With Daniel Davis, Laila Robins. 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.
Red Bull Theater has made its name on the grimmer classics: Jacobean revenge plays, Genet’s psycho-thrillers. But while blood is spilled only metaphorically in August Strindberg’s 1900 The Dance of Death, this conjugal cage match delivers greater punishment than all of Red Bull’s other vengeance-takers combined. This, of course, cuts two ways. It can be thrilling to watch from the sidelines as embittered military captain Edgar (Davis) and his wife, Alice (Robins), snap and tear at each other. But though the characters become splendid stage monsters—Davis a grinning, heavy-footed stegosaurus, Robins a lithe velociraptor—the play’s dogged psychic violence palls well before the curtain. Some of us, frankly, succumb to battle fatigue.
Strindberg’s toxic marriage tale—a kind of ur–Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—shows a couple expert at torturing each other, a talent best honed before innocent bystanders. Edgar and Alice’s invective seems almost affectionate when they are alone, but war escalates when cousin Gustav (a miscast Derek Smith) visits their lonely fortress home. Smith is smooth-voiced, tanned and pompadoured, and his flown-in-from-Miami vibe badly undercuts Gustav’s position as the couple’s latest prey. Director Joseph Hardy is much more successful in his choice of adaptation, a galloping, profanity-laced version by Mike Poulton. You can almost sense Davis and Robins sinking their fangs into its invigorating nastiness. Over nearly two-and-a-half hours, we grow exhausted, but Robins seems to get younger, her step lighter—while Davis flushes deep pink, his vitality renewed by the battle itself.—Helen Shaw