Despite the elegance of August Strindberg’s barbs, The Dance of Death is less of a waltz and more of a marathon dance-till-you-drop, an exhausting and only occasionally exhilarating battle between Alice (Laila Robins) and Edgar (Daniel Davis) on the eve of their twenty-fifth anniversary. Like George and Martha, sixty years down the road in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, these mismatched lovers maintain themselves by subjecting the rest of the world to their misanthropic scorn, united by the games they play with people like Gustav (Derek Smith), a cousin’s of Alice’s, come to visit. Like spiritual vampires–which they are directly called throughout the play, they leech off the feelings of those around them, and under Joseph Hardy’s cruel direction for Red Bull Theater–forever a brilliant but unflinching lot–that includes the audience, which is likely to feel drained by the lengthy production. There is little else in this world to grab on to for sustenance: Beowulf Boritt’s set is leached of its color, with black tendrils of decay snaking through the corners, and Clifton Taylor’s lighting is used only to emphasize and focus the most intense of showdowns between duelists. Mike Poulton’s terrific adaptation sounds great, and the cast–in particular Robins–delivers it well, going to great lengths to avoid coming across as monotonous in their repetitive insults, and yet it is hard to stomach the vitriol. (Imagine performing this twice a day!)
However, whereas Woolf has more elaborate games and philosophy to discuss, and Pinter uses structural tricks or revelations to give us something else (beyond cruelty) to consider, The Dance of Death feels like a full-bore heart attack which, like Edgar himself, is dying of a literal hard heart. There’s a clogging sensation to the narrative flow, akin to that of attempting to unstop a toilet, one that’s illustrated by Gustav when he notes that “Hatred breeds hatred.” There is more to the play than this–the way Alice and Edgar behave behind closed doors, as opposed to before an audience (like Gustav), and as Poulton emphasizes, the way that emotions are twisted by the way people identify. In Alice’s case, as a failed actress with false laurels hanging from the wall beneath a larger-than-life portrait of herself, she lashes out with deception and hyperbole, blaming Edgar for phantom abuses and laying a guilt trip like nobody’s business; in Edgar’s case, as the perennial soldier who refuses to retire (and ignores the mockery of those he would command), he must have everything according to his order, even if that means red-bodied rages and stubborn disputes with the doctor. But what comes across most is the miasma of suffering, which Gustav mistakes for the purpose of life: “We are here to endure.”
The Dance of Death is an unpleasant success, and if I weren’t afraid of love and commitment before, I am now.