“The Marriage from Hell” could have been the subtitle of August Strindberg’s Dance of Death, Part I. After 20 years together, Edgar and Alice pretty much despise one another. And this being Strindberg, it’s a pretty safe bet there won’t be any happy reconciliation.
The union of the play’s two parts is a troubled one, too. The August Strindberg Repertory Theatre’s new medley of Parts I and II of Dance of Death is billed as the first time they have been performed together in English. “Parts I and II Complete” alludes to that, not to the text, which has been abridged, minor characters dispensed with.
A Consummate Schemer
Company regulars Brad Fryman and Natalie Menna play Edgar and Alice. Fryman’s role is almost a reprise of his cantankerous character in the company’s 2019 production of The Father (reviewed here). But the Dance of Death iteration is more than overbearing and controlling; if you go ask Alice, this Captain is downright demonic.
The thing is, we don’t see much of Edgar’s evil side until Part II. That’s where the energy and drama pick up, in the production’s second act, when the younger generation appears. Edgar and Alice’s daughter Judith has been playing with the affections of the shy young soldier Allen, son of Alice’s cousin Kurt. And at a higher level, Edgar, we learn, has been manipulating all of them, diverting careers, splintering families, meddling cruelly in finances. Alice confesses to Kurt that she’s afraid of her husband. Though she admits that hers is “the most irrational hatred, without reason or purpose.” But Strindberg must have intended that as a comment on the meaninglessness of life in general; Edgar will give us more than enough reason to despise him.
However, Menna’s restrained Alice only really fires up at the end of Part I, gazing at Edgar where he stands outside on the rampart of their stony house (“a prison in ancient times,” as if we needed such symbolism). It seems Edgar has filed for divorce. Or has he? And what has he been doing to Kurt?
A New Translation
Fryman and Menna are attuned to director and translator Richard Greer’s language proclivities. These include a mostly smooth, occasionally awkward mix of colloquialism and austerity. Bailey Newman, another company regular, as Judith, and John Cencio Burgos – as excellent here as he was in John Patrick Shanley’s Candlelight earlier this winter – as Allen do well with the text too. Bryan James Hamilton as Kurt is less comfortable, affecting a clipped Golden-Age-of-Broadway accent that makes him seem to be in a slightly different play. When he and Alice begin scheming against, and cuckolding, Edgar, Kurt’s “You’ve awakened the beast in me” rings false.
The beastliness in this story lies elsewhere, primarily with Edgar. The Captain philosophizes that he has “found the arc of living to be elimination” of the woes that beset him – and, we learn, of the people who get in his way. And he’s passed this attitude on to the next generation. When Allen tells Judith he’s “not from a family of wolves” she snaps back, “Then you’re just one of the sheep.”
The young people’s relationship carries Part II. (The investment plot is confusing. Perhaps too much was cut from the script?) But Judith is more than a heartless tease; she reveals, too late, the sincere feelings she has developed in spite of herself. As her mother consoles her, we recognize, through Newman’s touching performance, that her cruelty is the common, immature kind. All may not be lost for the next generation.
The fundamental strangeness of the play is the transformation of Edgar from a disappointed, morally and physically broken, nearly poverty-stricken man in Part I to an energized manipulator who seems to have plenty of resources at his disposal in Part II. The play can’t help confounding us, just as Edgar’s evil motivations do.
One thing becomes clear, though: only an irreversible comeuppance can offer either spouse an escape from this marriage from hell. Dance of Death is at Theater for the New City through March 13. Visit the website for schedule and tickets or call the box office at (212) 254-1109.