The names above the title are British, and so is the director, which is why the big surprise about Broadway’s latest starry revival is that it hasn’t previously been seen and celebrated at the Almeida, the Donmar Warehouse or the Royal National Theater. Sean Mathias’ production of August Strindberg’s “Dance of Death” is a homegrown product that comes courtesy of the Shubert Organization. As such, it’s been given a first-class production, in a Broadway house big enough to allow the show to turn a profit during its limited run.
The disappointing news is that the trappings of such a prestigious production — the crowd-drawing presences of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, and the challenge of staging this difficult play in a major Broadway theater — may have contributed to its failings. For despite the intelligent efforts of the gifted creative team, which includes new adapter Richard Greenberg (American, he), this overscaled, somewhat overwrought staging plays up the text’s thorny, shrill surfaces and only intermittently succeeds in revealing its keening, anguished soul.
Famously the prototype of such miserable-marriage plays as “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Dance of Death” was written in 1900 but not produced in the Swedish playwright’s native country for nine years. “It makes much too disagreeable an impression” was the comment of one theater executive, and audiences streaming onto 44th Street at intermission, poleaxed by the play’s endlessly surging bitterness, would heartily concur.
But beneath Strindberg’s portrait of marriage as a minefield is something subtler and more enduring, an elegiac meditation on the trauma of existence and the mystery of death — the two unhappy poles between which life is so agonizingly strung. Mathias and his two charismatic stars put the play across as a bravura, murderously funny waltz, but they are less successful at shaping the peculiar ebb and flow of the drama in ways that give the audience access to its bleak but rewarding emotional resonance.
McKellen’s Edgar is an army captain in charge of an idle fortress on a small island whose inhabitants he despises, to a man. “Bottom-feeders” is his preferred term of opprobrium, in Greenberg’s modern-dress locution. Edgar’s contempt and mistrust for the rest of the island’s population means his society is limited to that of his wife, Alice (Mirren). Unfortunately, he appears to hate Alice in equal measure, and she gives as good as she gets. Throughout the first act, these spouses approaching their silver anniversary show remarkable ingenuity in finding new flesh on old bones of contention.
There is something surreal about their absolute isolation. They refuse to use a telephone for fear of the gossips listening in, so their only communication comes via telegraph. In the play’s opening minutes, their maid deserts them, and their children have long since fled the poisonous atmosphere. Their only visitor, Alice’s cousin Kurt (David Strathairn), soon becomes a pawn in their vicious battle of wills.
Mathias’ production takes its cue from this peculiar solitude, and points toward Strindberg’s more surreal plays as well as his influence on later absurdist writers. Santo Loquasto’s cluttered set is slightly tilted, like a faintly listing ship, and features a massive, white-tiled central tower that dwarfs the actors. Natasha Katz’s lighting moves from a golden-hued naturalism to more hotly or darkly expressionistic moods at will. David Van Tieghem supplies an eerie soundscape and haunting music that magnify the strangeness. The atmosphere recalls Simon McBurney’s unforgettable take on Ionesco’s “The Chairs,” but here the highly theatrical approach serves to overwhelm the play’s subtle changes in tone.
The performances of McKellen and Mirren are likewise tensely pitched: They pounce on the text’s acrid humor and its noxious savageness almost instantly. The delight with which the play’s two tortured souls insult and provoke each other is the source of the play’s scalding comedy, and it has been seized upon as the most viable means of securing the audience’s engagement with a difficult text (a tactic also taken, less justifiably, by Broadway’s concurrent “Hedda Gabler”). For a while, the thrust and parry of their interaction has a macabre fascination: McKellen and Mirren are performers of considerable natural wit, and as they taunt and torment each other, the acidic flavor of Strindberg’s mordant humor stings pleasurably.
McKellen, indeed, is thoroughly captivating to watch. He’s an actor of the school that establishes character through exquisitely wrought physical details. Here he works his face to emphasize its ghoulish crags, his gaping mouth suggesting a man whose manners have gone to permanent seed for lack of society. His tongue flicks in and out with relish as he contemplates a new volley of viciousness at hand, and when he breaks into a dance he cuts a manic, macabre figure, the grim vision of a dying man trying to rattle his withering bones back to life.
But it’s only in the few moments when McKellen reveals the bewildered soul beneath Edgar’s twitching skin that the piercing strength of the play flickers to life. Death is nipping at his heels throughout the play: Edgar keeps slipping into small fits of catatonia, from which he tends to emerge more irascible than ever. After a particularly severe one, he clings to the presence of Kurt and even reaches out for his wife’s hand (she rebuffs him). The melancholy surprise with which McKellen’s miserable Edgar says, “I don’t want to die!” beautifully reveals the sad conundrum at the heart of the play: Even those for whom life is a painful mystery fight against death with a ferocious tenacity.
The challenge posed by the play is how to reveal the human beings beneath the scarred skins of these monsters, to expose their viciousness as an expression of authentic pain, to make coherent the contradictory impulses that do battle in the recesses of the suffering soul — the desire to live and to die, to love and to hate, to endure and to escape. It’s a challenge this production meets only in small moments, chiefly McKellen’s. For most of the play’s duration, the harshness is so unremitting, the sarcasm so insistent, that we are precluded from spiritually engaging with the characters’ predicament.
Mirren insists on her character’s hard edges but never clarifies the depth of the pain that has shaped them; the performance has too few notes. Strathairn’s valiant struggle with the unrewarding role of Kurt — “Where am I? Am I in hell?” is a typical line — proves at times simply painful to watch.
In the end, only audiences keenly attuned to the finer shadings McKellen brings to Edgar will be able to trace the emotional progress of the play. It resolves itself in Edgar’s spiritual awakening in the face of mortality. He sees that the answer to life’s cruelty and death’s inevitability is not vengeance but forgiveness and resignation. “Maybe when death comes, life begins,” Edgar says with peculiar wonderment, expressing the cruel, poetic irony the play illustrates. Also ironically, by the time this epiphany arrives, most of the audience will be too numb to appreciate it.