Before there was George and Martha, there was Edgar and Alice. The central couple in August Strindberg's play The Dance of Death, hilariously adapted by Mike Poulton at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (in a production by Red Bull Theater), is just as neurotic as the codependents from Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but a whole lot funnier. Rather than reveling in the existential misery of life, Poulton's adaptation unleashes the subtle (if black) levity in Strindberg's play to delightful effect.
Set in a Swedish island fortress in the year 1900, The Dance of Death is about artillery captain Edgar (Daniel Davis) and his wife Alice (Laila Robins). They live a comfortable middle-class existence but can't seem to hold onto any servants because they're both completely insane. Sure, they seem like a typical old married couple, insulting each other with little digs, bickering over the future prospects of their downwardly mobile permanent student children, and in Edgar's case, slowly drinking themselves into oblivion. (All of these things seemed to really resonate with the older theater patrons around me the night I went.) When their old friend Gustav (Derek Smith) arrives, however, things get weird, and considerably more exciting. Edgar blames the globe-trotting Gustav for his marriage to Alice, and by consequence his middling quotidian existence. What starts as a social visit quickly becomes a dramatic love affair for former actress Alice, a duel to the death for lifelong soldier Edgar, and a total freak show for poor, confused Gustav.
Davis and Robins both have perfect comic timing. They land each jab, usually while wearing a big grin that doesn't soften the blow, but rather makes it sting all the more. (Davis, of course, had years of practice at the art of passive aggression, sparring with Lauren Lane as Niles the Butler on TV's The Nanny.) They very slowly and deliberately turn up the intensity of their quarrel until you are hooked on every word: When Edgar ripped up his will, thereby denying Alice any part of his estate, the elderly woman sitting in front of me gasped, "Noooo!"
Poulton has smartly adapted the play for maximum comedic effect, going as far as changing the name of the originally named "Curt" to the much more ridiculous and Swedish-sounding "Gustav" — a decision that pays off when Robins flails across stage shrieking "Save me, Guuuuustav!" He's also wisely chosen to forego adapting Strindberg's Hollywood-esque sequel, "The Dance of Death Part II," in which Edgar and Alice are joined by their daughter, Judith, and Curt's son, Allan, for some good old intergenerational codependent misery. Like many sequels, it doesn't work as well as the original, so Poulton only hints at it in his adaptation.
The simple period design gives the audience a clear idea of time and place while offering the actors plenty to play with. Beowulf Boritt's chaise longue (sometimes also known as a "fainting couch," although interior-decoration snobs might dispute this misnomer) proves to be the most valuable set piece, offering plenty of uses for the dramatic duo at the center of this piece.
As for Gustav, well, the default position of this thankless role seems to be looking completely horrified, as if encountering an alien species or visiting with a deranged mental patient. Smith does a fine job at this, but it is obvious this show is all about Edgar and Alice, and Gustav is just another name on their lengthy dance card. Check. Next!