Off-Broadway Review: THE DANCE OF DEATH (Classic Stage Company)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on February 10, 2019

in Theater-New York


“I thought we might show more decorum by keeping our long miserable mistake to ourselves,” Alice tells Edgar after he expresses his intention to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary. “Oh come, Alice!” responds the aging artillery captain. “We’ve had fun. Now and then. And soon it will all be over. We’ll be dead, and all that’s left is your rotten carcass.” So begins Conor McPherson’s dynamic modern “new version” of August Strindberg’s darkly-comic masterpiece The Dance of Death, about a couple whose 25-year marriage, we get the feeling, has gone on about 15 years too long.

They live on a remote island military base, in a granite tower that used to serve as a jailhouse. He’s a prideful drunk, she a former actress with pretensions ten years his junior, and both have managed to alienate everyone around them to where they are left with only each other to pass the time. They have a piano. “Play something?” asks the Captain. “You never like what I play,” answers Alice. They have cards. But Alice cheats, and Edgar’s eyes are so bad he can’t see his hand. He’s too unwell to enjoy tobacco, his “only pleasure.” They can’t afford to pay the butcher. Their maid quits. They don’t have enough wine. And with the kids away at boarding school, the couple’s main source of entertainment seems to be throwing jabs full of sarcasm, resentment and recriminations at one another.

Then Kurt, Alice’s still-handsome cousin, arrives to take the position of quarantine master, and the spouses’ jabs turn to power punches as they put him at the center of their toxic vortex, each using him to get at the other, and to satiate their own ravenous egos.

Despite its arguably grim title the play itself is delightful, full of humor and insight. As for Victoria Clark’s staging, if I could write a three-word review of the show, I would say, “It was fine.” The experience is akin to watching a play on TV — all the info is there but the emotional connection is lacking.

The show begins with Edgar (Richard Topol) and Alice (Cassie Beck) performing a dance on David L. Arsenault’s in-the-round stage. Though I confess I failed to appreciate its significance at the time, the dance appears to be a representation of the couple’s relationship up to the start of the play, how they met, fell in love, etc. It’s a clever directorial invention. Yet it does not make up for a lack of density in the portrayals — we do not get the sense that these two have 25 years of common experiences under their belts. The failure is uniform, and as both Ms. Beck and Mr. Topol seem quite capable, I have to lay the blame on the director.

Ms. Clark makes a few odd choices, such as allowing for Mr. Arsenault’s set to feel cozy, as opposed to having a claustrophobic or oppressive feel that the setting — a granite prison tower — seems to suggest. She has her actors jumping on each other’s lines and speaking very quickly, especially at the beginning, as though she’s afraid we’ll get bored if they slow down. As a result a number of jokes don’t quite land. Also, we don’t have enough time to take Edgar and Alice in properly, and they don’t have enough time to just be. Only when Kurt (Christopher Innvar) arrives and characters’ motivations become more obvious does the action start gaining emotional weight. And by the end we do get to see different sides to the couple and their relationship — because by then it’s all right there on the page. I just wish that the performances had subtext from the beginning.

photos by Joan Marcus

The Dance of Death
Classic Stage Company
in rep with Mies Julie
Lynn F. Angelson Theater at CSC, 136 East 13th St
ends on March 10, 2019
for schedule and tickets, call 212.352.3101 or visit CSC

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