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Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen
in Dance of Death
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
August Strindberg is credited with being the father of psychological drama. His 1901 play Dance of Death, now revived at the Broadhurst Theatre, makes us think that he might well have also been its mother. After all, this is an equal opportunity plunge into the holy shackles of matrimony. If you think George and Martha had it bad in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Dance of Death horrifically captures the love/hate aspects of marriage in all its grotesque minutiae.

This poison-covered play would be too toxic to see if it didn't feature actors you simply have to see. Sir Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren star as the moon-crossed lovers who are about to celebrate their 25th anniversary. These two actors put so much life into their roles that they almost turn this bleak play into a comedy about despair--but not quite. Like a DNA molecule, the husband and wife they play are bound to each other in a complicated double helix. The actors bring their considerable talents to a new, accessible adaptation of the play by Richard Greenberg. Add the darkly comic directorial touch provided by Sean Mathias and this Dance of Dance becomes a stark yet ultimately mesmerizing exploration of a truly scabrous relationship.

McKellen plays Edgar, an army captain whose career stalled long ago due to his consumption of alcohol and his own perverse nature. The self-aware, manipulative, needy Edgar is part ogre and part wounded puppy. His wife, Alice (Mirren), knows him better than anyone, but even she can't always tell what part of his personality will reach out and touch her. Not that she's an angel: A one-time actress of unknown talent, she taunts her husband about everything from his ugliness to his failures as a provider and a father. The glee that crosses her face when she thinks he may have died is something to behold.

Into this matrimonial minefield comes Kurt (David Strathairn), Alice's cousin and the man whom both Edgar and Alice mistakenly believe introduced them. Strathairn is a natural at portraying bewilderment, which works quite well here; but when his character becomes more deeply embroiled in the couple's relationship, this otherwise excellent actor seems out of his depth. Nonetheless, McKellen and Mirren are so fascinating to watch that lovers of the actors' craft will not be disappointed. McKellen gives a remarkable physical performance, including a fall that looks frighteningly realistic. Mirren plays Alice like a rhododendron that opens and closes based on the emotional temperature of the room.

Dance of Death is not a difficult play to follow, but it is hard to warm up to. Santo Loquasto's set design helps to draw the audience in with its imagistic creation of the prison--both literal and figurative--within which Edgar and Alice live. (Their home is, in fact, a prison that has been converted into living quarters.) Natasha Katz's lighting design further limns this nightmarish abode. Whether or not you want to drop in on this miserable couple should depend upon the strength of your desire to see what may well turn out to be Broadway's best performances of the year.

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