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Dance of Death. (Theater review: death, where is thy sting?).

Dance of Death * Written by August Strindberg; adapted by Richard Greenberg * Directed by Scan Mathias * Starring Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren * Broadhurst

Theatre, New York City (through January 13)

"Is he dead?" Alice (Helen Mirren) asks hopefully when her husband, Edgar (Ian McKellen), goes into one of his periodic catatonic trances. No such luck. Despite a couple of heart attacks and numerous seizures, Edgar survives to continue the zestful game of mutual torture through which the couple has sustained 25 years of a marriage decidedly not made in heaven.

Their kinship, as Edgar cheerfully points out to Alice's cousin Kurt (David Strathairn), is characterized by "love-hate --it's from hell."

Dance of Death, was written by Sweden's master dramatist August Strindberg a century ago, and it; has earned its place in theater history as one of the first plays to portray that love-hale with brutal honesty. Of course, after that, the deluge. Today, perhaps the most celebrated legacy of Dance of Death is that it was the forerunner of 20th-century American drama's nastiest play about a marriage, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginio Woolf?

Other than that, it's difficult to make a case for Dance of Death as a great play, It's completely unlike Strindberg's best-known early work, condensed character studies such as Miss Julie and The Stronger. Nor does it have the spectral moodiness of his late philosophical expressionist masterpieces, such as The Ghost Sonata or A Dream Play (which avant-garde maestro Robert Wilson staged beautifully in a production for Stockholm's Stadsteater, seen last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music).

Instead, Dance of Death is a strange and lumpy mixture of naturalism, symbolism, melodrama, fairy tale, and meditation on mortality. And in the new Broadway revival, which features a freshly commissioned adaptation by American playwright Richard Greenberg (best known for his Reagan-era play Eastern Standard), director Sean Mathias utterly fails to find a production style that allows the various pieces of the play to coexist cogently.

Part of the problem may be the effort of trying to make such a dark drama serve as a commercial vehicle for two British stars, McKellen (who is Mathias's former partner) and Mirren. McKellen, who first wowed Broadway 20 years ago in Amadeus and has since become the acting kingdom's staunchest out gay spokesman, clearly has the wiliness and grandeur to nail the part of Edgar, but the production around him is an awkward mess. Poor Mirren, the stage and film actress who was so brilliant in the Prime Suspect miniseries, comes off as small and tedious in Mathias's ill-conceived staging. You leave the theater wondering, What were they thinking?

Shewey is the editor of Out Front: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Plays, published by Grove Press.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Shewey, Don
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Nov 20, 2001
Previous Article:Three flights. (final cut).
Next Article:Puppetry of the Penis. (Theater review: stupid people tricks).

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