NEW YORK (AP) — "The Dance of Death," a searing, dark comedy about a bitterly hateful married couple, was written by August Strindberg in 1900. An edgy, sometimes harrowing new adaptation by Mike Poulton, presented by the always-adventurous Red Bull Theater, opened Thursday night off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, where the 19th-century marital battles are as resonant onstage as ever.
Laila Robins gives a spirited, often vitriolic performance as despairing Alice, married for 25 "hellish" years to Edgar, (Daniel Davis). He's an extremely unpopular military captain serving on an island that seems to have become their personal purgatory. Davis' subtle enactment of Edgar, who claims deteriorating health, equally embraces his bullying ways, empty swagger and self-pitying, reflective moments of broken spirit.
Director Joseph Hardy tries to leaven the script's hostility by finding as much humor as possible, although the comedy is acerbic and the couple's heated exchanges often scalding. Robins is both effusive and sly as Alice tries to keep one step ahead of her treacherous, bullying spouse. Davis hams it up a little, without spoiling the genuinely corrosive nature of their constant arguments.
Each character harbors delusions and justifiable paranoia about the other. With all their bickering, they've managed to isolate themselves from almost everyone both on and off the island, including their own children. Yet they still attempt with spiteful plotting to manipulate anybody foolish enough to come near them.
Enter Derek Smith, providing a firm if naive presence as Alice's younger cousin, Gustav. A would-be friend turned pawn, Gustav gets posted to the island and comes to visit them after many years. Smith wears an initial bemused detachment that gradually turns to stunned horror as he realizes the depths of their hatred for one another and the extent of Edgar's hostile delusions about Gustav himself.
When their twisted machinations truly ensnare him in the second act, Smith's bewilderment resonates, as Gustav observes belatedly, "I'm still way behind you, aren't I?" And it's only going to get worse, if he but knew. Alice repeatedly tries to poison Gustav's relationship with Edgar, as she and her husband attempt to play some terrible tricks on Gustav and against one another in the second act.
Despite the realism of having tasteful, turn-of-the-last-century furniture on Beowulf Boritt's cement-walled set, and Alejo Vietti's tasteful period costumes, the play remains quite surreal. Hardy's staging captures the nightmarishly comical yet chilling atmosphere that Strindberg must have envisioned for this poisonous couple.