Written by August Strindberg * Directed by Sean Mathias * Starring Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren * Broadhurst Theatre, New York City.

"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/hate 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 Virginia 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 last year in a production for Stockholm’s Stadsteater, seen 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 AIDS 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, Ian McKellen (who is Mathias’s former partner) and Helen 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 mini-series, comes off small and tedious in Mathias’s ill-conceived staging. You leave the theater wondering: what were they thinking?

The Advocate, November 20, 2001