|L-R: Daniel Davis, Laila Robins and Derek Smith in THE DANCE OF DEATH. Photo by David Gersten & Associates, Carol Rosegg|
In August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, Edgar (Daniel Davis), Captain of an island fortress, and his wife, Alice (Laila Robins), a former actress prior to her marriage to Edgar, are on the verge of celebrating their silver wedding anniversary. The island once served as a prison but Edgar and Alice have created a more formidable prison of their own: the bonds of their nearly 25 years of dysfunctional married life, a life of mutual hatred, resentment, cruelty, prevarication, self-absorption and denial.
Edgar’s self-aggrandizement and delusions of grandeur border on solipsism. He claims to be in fine financial shape but can’t pay his bills. The fact that he never was promoted to major may rankle but he won’t admit it: he contends that he chose to turn down promotions when they were offered to him. His children have little use for him other than as a potential source of funds but he can’t face that. He has no friends and is unable to retain servants but does not see how any of that might be his own fault. In sum, if ever there is some aspect of life that he dislikes, he simply “blots it out.”
Alice is equally deranged. She fantasizes that she relinquished a promising career as an actress to marry Edgar when, in reality, she didn’t have much of a stage career to give up on to begin with. She has no better relationship with her children than Edgar has and she blames him for that. Nor does she take any personal responsibility for their lack of friends or loss of servants.
With that as backdrop, these two severely maladjusted individuals wreak havoc on one another in their interpersonal relations. In a way, they come across as lovers playing at consensual but dangerous sex games – who forgot their “safe word.” As a military man, Edgar seems to treat their relationship as some sort of “war game,” with Alice as the enemy. And as a former actress, Alice seems to want to force Edgar into the role of her doting audience. Indeed, compared to Edgar and Alice, Edward Albee’s George and Martha (from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) come off as little worse than Ralph and Alice Kramden of The Honeymooners.
When Gustav (Derek Smith), Alice’s cousin, shows up, matters quickly go from bad to worse. Now Gustav is assigned the role of Edgar’s enemy and of Alice’s audience. Gustav’s own personal life is in something of a shambles: he is divorced and estranged from his own children. He may at one time have been Edgar’s close friend; he may have been instrumental in getting Edgar and Alice together in the first place (at least Edgar blames him for that); and he and Alice may once have been, or may yet become, something more than just “kissing cousins.”
Red Bull Theater has just launched a fine production of The Dance of Death (in an excellent new highly stylized adaptation by Mike Poulton) at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. Complications and surprises abound and all three of the play’s actors are up to the demands made of them. This play is certainly well worth seeing.