Americans are likely to view Strindberg's 1901 "Dance of Death," a blistering portrait of a viciously unhappy marriage, through the prism of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" - though George and Martha come across as positively tender compared to Edgar and Alice. If Albee is indebted to the Swedish playwright for having expanded the bonds of what is permitted onstage, he has also acknowledged the influence of Noel Coward in structuring a play around game-playing. The current revival of "Dance," starring English actors Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, begins in a style so jocular, you might imagine it's a drawing-room comedy, an unusually mordant "Hay Fever."
At first I thought this was a clever ploy to draw us into this relentlessly dark play. But if you start on a light note, it's hard to shift gears. Although the play has a lot of derisive humor, you have to sense from the very start that the antipathy of Alice and Edgar is indeed lethal. It's conceivable that actors could present the vengeful insults these two hurl at each other as a kind of sadistic foreplay, but in this production it comes across merely as listless, mechanical sparring - as if the pair are beyond the rancor necessary for active combat. They have spent 25 years on an island in a fortress that used to be a prison. (Subtlety was not Strindberg's forte.) Edgar is an artillery captain, who has written about guns and likes to brandish swords. Alice was an actress. They are visited by Kurt, the man who introduced them. In an early form of "Get the Guest," each preys on Kurt, hoping he will see the other as the devil in what they both describe as hell. Here, the wife does get the guest. Eventually, however, she is reconciled with her longtime partner and assailant. As Alice, Mirren is indeed actressy, which the character's past justifies. But we never sense the vulnerability, the forlornness that might have propelled her toward a man whose ugliness - physical and spiritual - she so openly derides. McKellen plays the captain with plenty of bravura, but he, too, has a theatricality that undercuts what is supposed to be unrelieved pain. When he dons his uniform late in the play, the symbol of the authority he has lost, it ought to be grotesque. Here, it smacks of Offenbach. As their friend, David Strathairn has an aptly bewildered air. Santo Loquasto's set conveys the sense of a cheerless military prison, and it is atmospherically lit by Natasha Katz. The play is so extreme it can only work if the inner desolation of these people is immediately palpable. Full strength, "Dance" might be unbearable. Anything less, however, makes the play seem merely the work of a disordered, clumsy mind.
“Dance of Death" is a lacerating last tango in Sweden that takes no prisoners and offers nothing but the armistice of resignation.
Strindberg's battle of the sexes, which opened last night at the Broadhurst Theatre, is a strange and glittering series of duets, principally between a couple on the cusp of their 25th wedding anniversary.
Thrown unwittingly into this fray is a second man, the wife's cousin, whose eventually ineffective intervention only highlights and deepens the marital misery.
Edgar (Ian McKellen) is an army captain: vicious, ugly, unloved and unlovable, commanding some miserable fort on a small, barren Swedish island.
Disappointed in his career, chronically poor, misanthropic and drunken, he lives in brutal tandem with his wife (Helen Mirren), a one-time would-be actress cheated by marriage of a career.
They have made their home in what was once a prison on the island - and figuratively is a prison still.
Into this grim household comes a visitor, Kurt (David Strathairn).
This production, in a new version by Richard Greenberg and staged by Sean Mathias, misses something of the work's claustrophobia, which is partly due to Santo Loquasto's otherwise splendid indoor/outdoor set.
Yet Mathias' emphasis on the chamber music aspect of this awesome love/hate relationship is as impressive as the acting itself.
McKellen, in his sardonically vicious picture of Edgar, recalls the subtlety of his Iago in the twists and turns of a tortured mind and poisoned spirit.
It is a wonderful, if actorly, performance, too much on the surface for greatness, yet consummately well-played.
Mirren digs a little deeper, and comes up with a marvelously modulated portrayal of the combatant wife, giving her life history in every move and glance, her character in every phrase and gesture.
Mousy and seductive by turn, Mirren charms and horrifies as the perfect neurotic partner for death in life.
Strathairn, faced with a battery of British-style histrionic virtuosity - for neither Mirren nor McKellen yields a stage inch - comes off very well, unscathed and even wimpishy eloquent as the play's odd man out.
This is not a "Dance of Death" for all time, but it is continuously fascinating, whimsically alluring and a version of Strindberg very much relevant to our time.
Before the dance, there is the walk.
It is not a graceful walk, at least not by conventional standards, that is being practiced by Ian McKellen in the revival of Strindberg's ''Dance of Death'' that opened on Broadway last night. His legs stiffen and stray; his basic navigational instincts betray him.
But his posture is as arrogantly erect as pain allows. And when a footstool intrudes itself into his path, as it will keep doing, Mr. McKellen kicks it away as if it were some importunate, helpless little animal. And he keeps walking. That's the important thing: he keeps walking.
Lumbering across the long stage of the Broadhurst Theater, Mr. McKellen brings something frightening and majestic to the act of putting one wayward foot before the other. As Edgar, the infirm army captain living in spiteful and isolated wedlock in a dank island outpost, Mr. McKellen projects an aggressive arrogance that doesn't so much conquer decay as ignore it. Every willed gesture, no matter how sloppy, becomes a death-defying act.
Watching Mr. McKellen's captain shooting sparks in the dark mouth of mortality is about as thrilling as theater gets. Too long absent from New York's stages, this English actor, much celebrated here for his Tony-winning performance in ''Amadeus'' 20 years ago, returns to Broadway to serve up an Elysian concoction we get to sample too little these days: a mixture of heroic stage presence, actorly intelligence and rarefied theatrical technique.
Those who know Mr. McKellen only from his recent eccentric film roles (he's the Hobbit-advising wizard in the forthcoming ''Lord of the Rings'') can't begin to appreciate his reputation as the greatest living actor of the English-speaking stage. Mr. McKellen needs the space, the amplitude that theater allows. Even playing small and inward, as he did in the title role of ''Uncle Vanya'' a decade ago, he projects big.
Too big, some critics have argued. But in an age dominated by the pocket Adonises of the screen, there's rich satisfaction in seeing a performer who combines intellectual integrity with an emotional reach that hugs the very last rows in the balcony. And when you have an actress of comparable fire power, the throaty siren known as Helen Mirren, playing the captain's adversarial helpmate, Alice . . . well, your only choice is to join the line for tickets.
That said, it must be admitted that this ''Dance of Death,'' which has been directed by Sean Mathias, doesn't entirely live up to its leading man. There is for starters the crucial question of the third member of the play's triangle of shifting power. That's Alice's cousin, Kurt, who is portrayed by David Strathairn, an excellent American actor, who here takes his character's passivity well past the vanishing point.
There are also chafing discrepancies in tone. In its portrait of marriage as a torture chamber, Strindberg's turn-of-the-century masterpiece presents an obvious temptation to go Gothic, with vampire versus vampire squaring off in the marital ring. To some degree, this product cultivates an aura of Transylvanian kitsch.
Don't forget that Mr. Mathias's last Broadway success was his rollicking production of Cocteau's ''Indiscretions'' (''Les Parents Terribles''), which was staged as an outlandish Symbolist romp. Here, Santo Loquasto's set exudes a similar, if more cluttered, look of diabolical whimsy, turning the captain's island fortress into a haunted house jointly designed by Dali and Disney.
And the music and sound design by Dan Moses Schreier sometimes seems borrowed from ''Dark Shadows,'' the vampire soap opera. Ditto Natasha Katz's artful but lurid lighting. When the two combine to underscore the ominous visit of a beggar woman (Anne Pitoniak), you feel you've wandered into an old Christopher Lee movie.
This is all, in truth, kind of a hoot. But what Ms. Mirren and especially Mr. McKellen are doing is much more devious and ultimately far more interesting. Working from the playwright Richard Greenberg's astutely loosened up adaptation and benefiting from Mr. Mathias's obviously affectionate direction, these performers elicit the Every Marriage aspect in the captain and Alice's relationship, especially in the first act.
This marriage may be a sort of hell on earth, yes. But is it really so different from that of many couples who have lived long and claustrophobically in each other's presence, the tics and habits of each tattooed into the mind of the other? What's shocking about the opening scenes of this ''Dance'' isn't the eye-popping open-walled castle of a set; it's the feeling that you've dropped in on a couple that you usually take pains to avoid visiting.
For there is Ms. Mirren, hunkered into her shawl on one side, her voice aquiver with fretfulness and a resentment of such long standing that it has worn at the edges. And there, oh so homey on the opposite side of the stage, is Mr. McKellen's captain, with an almost pleasant, rectangular smile revealing teeth to watch out for.
As they bicker and snipe, momentarily falling into nasty collusion over the failings of their distant neighbors, you know this is their everyday fare. They must long ago have settled into this acrimonious ritual, from which they clearly draw at least minor pleasure. Their defense of their respective (and hefty) egos is what keeps their blood circulating.
''I suppose you're attractive . . . to other people, when it suits you,'' he says to her, savoring each pause like old brandy. After a minor dispute on how to handle the servant question (a serious one in their case, since no one stays for long), she tells him, ''You are a despot with the character of a slave.''
How's that for a description for an actor to live up to? Yet Mr. McKellen miraculously does, giving credence to the idea that one may smile and smile, however humbly, and still be a tyrant. He is unfailingly polite, jocular and often soft-spoken. Yet there is a demure threat poised behind every courteous gesture.
Notice the captain's ostensibly loving physical contacts with Alice's cousin Kurt, who reappears in their lives after a long absence. Edgar clutches Kurt to his chest while pressing a cane or rifle horizontally against Kurt's back. When Mr. McKellen places his hands on Kurt's shoulders, you understand the look of slight, panicked nausea on Mr. Strathairn's face.
It is Kurt's mere presence, of course, that alters the routine chemistry between Alice and the captain. Now they have an audience and potentially an accomplice. Or is it a victim? In any case, their litany of reciprocal grievances turns into an operatic war that may be either the real thing or merely another diverting military exercise. Kurt may not altogether appreciate their vitriolic performance, but we sure do.
For this is when Ms. Mirren bursts into glorious artificial flower. This actress, known to Americans as the sublimely weary crime solver of ''Prime Suspect,'' takes her cues from our knowledge that Alice was herself an actress. She has been waiting for a comeback as eagerly and as long as Norma Desmond.
With Kurt to observe her, Alice's face floods with light; her voice acquires ringing bell tones; anticipating her husband's imminent death, she sheds her at-home drudgery clothes in two witty variations on dressing to kill. Alice's seduction of her cousin, as she rocks fervidly from foot to foot, is scary, funny and sexual at once. And just wait till she (literally) lets her hair down.
This is also, unfortunately, where Mr. Strathairn's performance runs aground. In the earlier scenes with the couple, the actor's air of quiet uneasiness works fine, as he becomes both target and confessor to the ailing captain. The role is partly a stand-in for Strindberg, and it's tough to pull off. But at some point, Kurt has to be transformed into a monster on the level of his hosts, and Mr. Strathairn is unwilling to make that leap. He disappears when he should be most visible.
This sense of a vacuum detracts from ''Dance'' as a study of a marriage. We need that third point in the temporary triangle to make full sense of the dynamic that keeps Alice and the captain together. The emphasis instead shifts to another relationship, that of the captain with death. And if this makes the play a tad lopsided, it also allows Mr. McKellen to give a performance that will become a touchstone for anyone else playing the part.
I can't think of a more profound or unsettling study in denial from my theater-going experience. The first thing you have to know about Mr. McKellen's captain is that he is indeed dying; the second thing is that he intends to treat death as he has all things that contradict his wishes and beliefs, by pretending it doesn't exist.
There's fierceness in his decrepitude. If he can't manage the stairs, he'll slide down the banister. Though his head falls regularly to one side and his eyes will sometimes go dead and absent, he insists on ordering chateaubriand for breakfast in a voice that suggests God as a gourmand. There are also the cruel moments of recognition: of fear and acceptance, when he wraps his arms around himself and suddenly looks small and very cold. By the end, these accumulate into something like an epiphany.
Yet these scenes don't erase the memory of the dance of the boyars that the captain performs for Kurt, as Alice plays the piano. It's a furious, flustered performance, both heroic and pathetic, in which the captain seems to kick and punch at every dismal phantom in pursuit of him. These are not rehearsed steps. He's making it up as he goes along, with all the vitality that's left him. He is, to put it simply, staying alive.