David Greig, adapter-translator of August Strindberg's "Creditors," has commented that Strindberg's acerbic classic is really "less of a play and more an almost demonic experiment on a set of three human lab rats."
In David Trainer's muscular staging at the Odyssey – a co-production of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and the New American Theatre – it gradually becomes apparent that the slyly manipulative Gustav (Jack Stehlin), one of the play's tortured threesome, is more scientist than rat – a coldly calculating clinician who sends his laboratory subjects down a deadly psychological maze of his own brilliant devising.
Initially, Gustav comes across as the well-meaning new friend of Adolf (Burt Grinstead), an impressionable artist whom Gustav has met, apparently by chance, at a Swedish seaside resort – a milieu wittily evoked in Thomas A. Walsh's subtly impressionistic scenic design.
Yet under Gustav's relentless questioning, Adolf's fears about the fidelity of his novelist wife, Tekla (Heather Anne Prete), come raging to the fore. Subsequently, Adolf confronts Tekla with his suspicions, then exits the scene, leaving Gustav free rein to pull off the final phase of his plot.
To say any more would be a sad spoiler. Those not already familiar with the piece should avoid Wikipedia and plunge freely into Greig's occasionally prolix yet surprisingly comedic adaptation, a wild ride through a deadly carnival fun house.
Not surprisingly, the sole female character is an emasculating coquette, an irritatingly dated and misogynistic archetype that neither Greig's text nor Prete's somewhat one-note performance ameliorates. Adolf is more contemporary in tone, and Grinstead offers us a layered perspective as to why Adolf would descend so willingly into Gustav's trap.
But it is Stehlin as the odious Gustav who owns the evening in a role he was born to play. It's a towering turn, a chilling exercise in single-minded malevolence as appalling as it is thrilling.
"Creditors," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. (Wednesdays and Thursdays on select dates.) Ends Dec. 15. $25 and $30. (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2. www.odysseytheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.