"No one has the opportunity of tormenting one another as thoroughly as a man and woman who love one another (= hate one another)," Swedish playwright August Strindberg observed with his usual acrimonious relish.
His play "The Dance of Death" is a demonstration of this ruthlessly unromantic view. The current revival at A Noise Within, using a smooth and relatively new translation by Irish playwright Conor McPherson that's tinged with Beckett, softens some of the savagery. But even watered down, Strindberg's balefulness has a tonic quality.
The author of "Miss Julie," "The Father" and "The Ghost Sonata," Strindberg has been pilloried as a misogynist, though misanthrope might be the more appropriate charge. An equal opportunity cynic, he would be dismissed as a nut job were he not such an astute observer of human behavior at its quotidian worst and a dramatic poet of groundbreaking innovation and lasting influence.
Bitter, brutal and death-haunted, "The Dance of Death" is the forerunner of such combative marital dramas as Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and, most especially, Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Less often produced than these American masterpieces, "The Dance of Death" paved the way for domestic war games in the modern theater.
Set in an old jail that has been converted into a home for a military captain and his wife, the play literalizes the notion of marriage as a prison. In Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit," hell is defined as other people; Strindberg's formula is more discrete: Hell is two people with a marriage license.
Edgar (Geoff Elliott) and his wife, Alice (Susan Angelo), occupy their sitting room like ghosts waiting for a reprieve from their torment. Isolated on an island housing an artillery fortress, the couple maintains a private cache of weaponry — blistering recriminations, deadly threats and mortifying insults that could give Albee's Martha and George a run for their money.
With their silver anniversary looming, Edgar and Alice have occasion to review the shambles they have made of their lives. Alice, in particular, regrets having given up the stage for her husband, though truth be told she has merely transferred her melodramatics to a private audience.
Onto this battlefield walks Kurt (Eric Curtis Johnson), the island's new quarantine master and the man who brought Edgar and Alice together. He has a lot to answer for.
But just as Edgar and Alice once used their children (now sent away to school) as proxies in their interminable war, so they will employ Kurt, who seems completely unprepared for the hostilities in store for him. (McPherson's version reduces the cast size to three, intensifying the claustrophobia and combustion.)
Elliott not only stars in the production but co-directs with his wife, Julia Rodriguez-Elliott (the two are ANW's producing artistic directors and doubtless more happily married than Edgar and Alice). His performance, more suave than ferocious, could use sterner guidance.
The problem with his acting — and this pertains also to Angelo's — is that it strives for a relaxed naturalness that often seems artificial. Instead of rising to meet Strindberg's tragi-comic style, he opts to make his character appealingly relatable for contemporary theatergoers. Johnson is more successful at locating the playwright's bracingly mercurial tone. But the world of the play — a cutoff artistic universe all its own — never feels fully authentic.
The best thing about this revival is the design. Angela Balogh Calin's scenic and costume designs are darkly entrancing, and Ken Booth's shadowy lighting lends the realism a touch of expressionistic menace.
But the production isn't quite pressurized enough, the battle lacks momentum, and the ending is sentimentalized. Strindberg can be called many things, but soppy is not one of them. This "Dance of Death" chills, then tosses the audience a blanket.
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'The Dance of Death'
Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena
When: Check theater for schedule. Ends Nov. 23
Info: (626) 356-3100 Ext. 1, www.anoisewithin.org
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes