Adapter/director Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”) dispels all library mustiness from August Strindberg’s “Creditors” in the reworking commissioned by the La Jolla Playhouse. The 1888 tragicomedy is the least-known leg of a marital slugfest trilogy including “The Father” and “Miss Julie,” though it’s arguably the most modern, and in Wright’s hands certainly the sexiest and most fun. Strindberg’s massive influence over contemporary drama can be discerned as three trenchant scenes slice and gut a relationship.
The setting — a luxury spa’s drawing room overlooking a veranda — is airier than Strindberg’s usual chilly confines. But this is still one of his connubial dances of death, designer Robert Brill’s shrewdly chosen gray walls and clutter (including horns mounted above a bedroom door) complementing a marriage’s downward spiral.
Ailing Adolf (Omar Metwally), a painter of fading accomplishment, has come for the waters but stays for some man-to-man time. Widower Gustav (T. Ryder Smith) proves a willing sounding board regarding wife Tekla (Kathryn Meisle), best-selling author and accomplished flirt. (Or “old flirt,” as Adolf was unwise enough to point out at their last meeting.)
Distinct echoes of Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,” or any number of Neil Labute buddy raps, are heard as Adolf reveals the perils of marriage to an independent woman: “Anything I have to offer? It’s never good enough.” He encouraged her writing, but did she nurture him? Not as far as he can pinpoint, while emptily averring “she’s the force that sustains me, that keeps me alive.”
Gustav sees through the equivocations. “This is cannibalism,” he deduces. “She’s eaten your soul,” having undone Adolf’s art and compromised his manhood. The widower plants seeds of doubt like a more urbane Hickey in O’Neill’s “Iceman Cometh,” stripping a friend of pipe dreams. “Sometimes you have to scorch the earth in order to renew it,” he quietly observes upon retiring.
Scene two plays like Albee at his most devilish, in exploring the thin ice all romantic relationships tread. Adoring, pixieish Tekla is a far cry from the monster described, though we detect a hint of the succubus: “Come and bite me, little brother,” she wickedly burbles, Adolf still in a tailspin. As they kiss, everything’s ducky until an offhand comment sets off a major battle over who owes what to whom.
Wright’s pacing and rhythms bring out the uneasy truce always in place on the domestic front.
About scene three nothing may be said here, so as to protect the skein of insights and surprises set in place by Strindberg and polished by Wright to brilliant steel. (He scrapes away a century’s worth of fustian from Anders Cato’s literal translation, to reveal conversation fresh as today.) Suffice to say we’re left with no ambiguity as to the title: Every lover is a creditor, Strindberg believes, and the tragedy lies in our readiness to allow a desire for debt repayment to trump our best interests.
The outstanding La Jolla performances reflect the characters’ dualities. Adolf’s oscillating fever and bliss can be read in Metwally’s very frame, while Meisle is alternately coquettish and commanding as dizzying circumstances dictate. Smith maintains ineffable integrity with each knife twist, throwing in an occasional shoulder rub or hand on Adolf’s knee to hint at his intentions.
Susan Hilferty’s stunning costumes seem inspired by Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night,” particularly Meisle’s white gown tantalizingly hiding and revealing the voluptuousness within. And Japhy Weideman reflects the healing spa waters as ominously flickering window light, as if anticipating the Strindberg who would abandon naturalism for the kinder, gentler expressionism of “The Ghost Sonata.”