Without the utter fascination of watching these totally professional actors at work and at their best at the Broadhurst Theater, "Dance of Death" would be almost unbearable in its depiction of a couple locked in a bitterly unhappy, 25-year marriage that feeds on its own despair. The question that springs to mind is who needs this particular play at this particular time?
Strindberg wrote this rarely performed work as a reflection on his own three failed marriages and loss of the custody of his children. It was not produced until 1912, the year of his death, and it embodies the combination of psychology and brutal naturalism that helped develop a new kind of European drama dubbed "Expressionist" that was developed in Germany and influenced such American playwrights as Eugene O'Neill and Edward Albee.
The play is set in 1900 on a lonely island off the coast of Sweden where Edgar (McKellen), an aging and ailing army captain, is in charge of the fort. His wife, Alice (Mirren), a former actress, is looking forward to a visit from her cousin, Kurt (David Strathairn, an American actor), who has suffered some sort of scandal that ruined his marriage, lost him custody of his children, and caused him to flee to America.
Now Kurt has returned to Sweden, and a new job as a quarantine officer has brought him to Edgar and Alice's prison-like island whose only connection with the world outside is by an antiquated telegraph. Both of the couple's children have been sent to the mainland for an education and are not likely to return to a place so desolate physically and spiritually.
And so the stage is set for Edgar and Alice, whose own marital battle has been fought to a draw, to try to gain control over the soul of Kurt since they no longer control each other. They are veterans at playing cruel games, not only for amusement but to fend off the dead weight of terminal boredom that even their sarcastically spiteful exchanges, however clever and amusing, cannot lighten.
Edgar, who knew Kurt well in their youth, lies to him about his estranged son being billeted on their island, raising his hope of getting to know the boy. Alice, convinced that Edgar is dying, is bent on the seduction of Kurt and receives encouragement in her scheme when Edgar lies to her about filing for a divorce. At last she sees the possibility of escape.
Mirren's transformation from a slovenly harridan wrapped in a shawl to a flirtatious semblance of herself as a pretty young woman in love with her handsome cousin is one of the play's most rewarding moments. This wonderful actress, best known to American audiences as Inspector Jane Tennison in the "Prime Suspect" television series, is able to give her audience a glimpse of what an alluring person she once was before her ill-fated marriage robbed her of her true essence.
But no matter how beguiling Mirren can be, it is McKellen who truly dominates the stage in his masterful impersonation of an arrogant man who would be cock of the walk although he is just an ordinary rooster who can no longer strut. His Edgar's legs are stiff and his balance just off enough so that he lists a bit as he moves, but he is still able to maintain his rigid army stance with some effort.
McKellen is a hypnotic stage presence whose absence from Broadway, where he won a Tony Award for his performance in "Amadeus" 20 years ago, has been much too long. He is an actor in complete control physically and intellectually, able to project his character to the last row of the balcony even though his ravaged but expressive face may only appear as a blur there.
McKellen may well be expressing his philosophy of acting in a line addressed to Kurt when he turns down the offer of an alcoholic drink.
"I want excess," he informs Kurt disapprovingly. "Or what's the point?"
In the end, Edgar and Alice chew Kurt up, discard him, and retreat into their acrimonious marriage, the thing that really keeps both of them alive. Edgar calls it soldiering on. Alice, the more realistic one, sees it as a living hell. Strindberg, despite his reputation as a misogynist, draws Alice with more compassion than Edgar.
Mirren and McKellen have the privilege of working from playwright Richard Greenberg's colloquial adaptation of Strindberg's period play and with direction from Sean Mathias, who works in both New York and London and will direct "Company" as part of the Stephen Sondheim tribute at the Kennedy Center in Washington next spring.
Unfortunately, Mathias has been unable to draw a really first-rate performance from Strathairn, whose Kurt is such a pale personality that he virtually vanishes from the play before he is supposed to. Strindberg intended that Kurt should reveal his dark side under the influence of Alice, whom he once may have loved, but Strathairn fails to do this convincingly.
Designer Santo Loquasto's set is so overwhelmingly eccentric that he should come away with a Tony for it even if no one else in the show gets an award, and his costumes are equally inspired.
The captain's living quarters are in a grim former prison tower with a spiraling steel staircase. Edgar and Alice have made it into a storage warehouse where the detritus of decades of marital life have merely been shoved into corners rather than discarded. Natasha Katz's lighting adds to eeriness of the Gothic atmosphere Loquasto has achieved.
This is a limited, 17-week engagement, ending Jan. 13.