`The Dance of Death’

Corrections or additions?

This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the November 28,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

On Broadway: `Thou Shalt Not’

It would be easy to dismiss "Thou Shalt Not"

as a musical theater fiasco were it not for the occasional fine song,

some haunting imagery, and the many fine performances that crop up

in this strangely compelling musical, the creation of a group of very

talented, if misguided, artists. The collaborators are Susan Stroman,

the lauded choreographer and director of "The Producers,"

"Contact," and the revival of "The Music Man," Harry

Connick Jr., the pop composer and singer who is making his Broadway

debut with a jazz-influenced score (he also wrote the lyrics), and

book writer David Thompson (his adaptation of "A Christmas

Carol"

is seen each year at McCarter).

Perhaps the task of adapting Emile Zola’s 19th-century novel

"Therese

Raquin," proved too daunting a task for Thompson, who has updated

the rather lurid and grim events of the classic love triangle from

mid-19th-century Paris to mid-20th-century New Orleans, shortly after

the end of World War II.

At any event, one has to admire somewhat Thompson film-noir approach

to the story, told in flashback by the anti-hero Laurent to some after

hours bar habitues. A musician and drifter, Laurent has taken a gig

at a New Orleans cafe, run by Madame Raquin, the mother of his old

friend Camille, a sickly pianist. While there, he has an affair with

Camille’s wife, Therese. Fueled by their passion, they conspire to

kill Camille. They do just that during the Mardis Gras celebration.

Madame Raquin, who has devoted her life to doting on her son, has

a stroke, leaving her speechless, when she hears the news of the

accident.

Before that, as the house-chanteuse, she gets to sing two swinging

songs "My Little World," and "I’ve Got My Eye on You."

When guilt overcomes Therese, she can no longer stand either the sight

of Laurent or the sight of Camille’s specter that soon begins to

follow

her around. Oh, yes with the best song (Sinatra would be singing it

today if he were still alive) in the show — "Oh! Ain’t That

Sweet."

By the time that Therese and Laurent come to their predictably tragic

ends, the musical has tried valiantly to create a seedy and depraved

film-noir atmosphere. It is helped to a degree by Thomas Lynch’s

nightmarish

watercolor settings and William Ivy Long’s frighteningly ’40s

fashions.

Stroman has taken pains to address Laurent and Therese’s steamy sexual

encounters with a torrid love scene in which the lovers are put in

sensual motion on a revolving bed. It may make them dizzy but it

worked

for me. Otherwise the choreography slips into more conventional

dances,

as at a typically high spirited New Orleans funeral bash and a

presumably

obligatory mask and costume Mardi Gras celebration. Except for a few

songs, including the title one, Connick’s score barely takes on the

challenge demanded by the story.

As fate would have it, I saw the Broadway debut of lead standby David

New, as Laurent, in the role usually played by Craig Bierko, who was

out with an injury he incurred on opening night. New convinced me

he was a perfect choice for the charismatic, moody, and emotionally

disintegrating murderer. Although a graceful dancer, Kate Levering

was hard pressed to insinuate the darker more primal feelings that

motivate Therese. Until and after she is silent, Debra Monk gives

the most emotionally direct and sustained performance as Madame

Raquin.

Despite the spine-tingling efforts of Norbert Leo Butz, as Camille,

to show us how a dead man can bring a show to life, "Thou Shalt

Not" (a Lincoln Center production) remains glumly and resolutely

in musical purgatory. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.

— Simon Saltzman

Thou Shalt Not, Plymouth Theater, 236 West 45th Street,

New York. Tickets $55 to $85. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or

212-239-6200.

To January 6.

Top Of Page
`The Dance of Death’

You can’t hope to see any better world-class British

actors than Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, as the stars of August

Strindberg’s seminal, yet rarely staged, classic "The Dance of

Death." And given that the production has been directed by another

lauded Britisher, Sean Mathias (represented on Broadway by

"Marlene"

and "Indiscretions"), the result has to be awesome.

That is if we assume that these three have an inside track on the

depths, the nuances, and subtleties within Strindberg’s acidic 1900

comedy/drama of love and hate. And just to bring a responsive balance

to the endeavor, we not only have a beautifully resonating adaptation

by the excellent American playwright Richard Greenberg, but also the

presence of esteemed American actor David Strathairn in a major

supporting

role.

Well, let’s just say that this is a rewarding, if thoroughly draining,

dramatic workout for them and for us.

But why then does the play sort of grind along, artfully displaying

a generous amount of great acting, but unable to bring us deeply into

what has the potential to be an emotionally wrenching depiction of

hate as a weapon, love as a mask, and death as the only redemption.

Acknowledged as the forerunner and possibly the inspiration for Edward

Albee’s equally brilliant 20th-century rotten-marriage play,

"Who’s

Afraid of Virginia Woolf," "The Dance of Death" doesn’t

hide, as "Woolf" does, behind delusions, false accusations,

recriminations, and lies. As "Dance of Death" attempts to

reveal the ravenous, insidious, and murderous demands that a married

couple makes upon each other, we are pulled into the fray by the sheer

force of its players. It is to Strindberg’s credit that no matter

what hateful speech or destructive act is perpetrated by either Edgar

(McKellan), an army captain, or his wife Alice (Mirren), we are always

aware how their often funny assaults on each other are forever testing

the ever-shifting boundaries of their relationship.

While Edgar is presumably in charge of a gloomy fortress

that is their home, on an island off the coast of Sweden, the mistrust

and disgust he has for everyone else on the island is mysteriously

but relentlessly directed toward Alice. She, in return, torments him

in equal measure. Cruel to their maid, who leaves at the beginning

of the play, and apt to destroy whomever dares to enter their surreal

and sacred playground, Edgar and Alice are soon about victimizing,

by emotional seduction, their only visitor, Alice’s recently divorced

cousin Kurt (Strathhairn).

Both McKellan and Mirren appear to have ingested all the venom in

the text and quite a bit of the tragi-comical motivation. Perhaps

I would have been happier had I seen a glimmer of what lies below

their violently expressed hatred. Notwithstanding their carefully

honed, incendiary performances, one is apt to feel little or no

empathy

for either of them. I wonder now what exactly did Strindberg want

us see of ourselves in these two, who take such pleasure in devouring

each other and anyone who comes into their web of cruelty. Hard

pressed

to hold his own against two actors who show no mercy, Strathairn

simply

yet courageously disintegrates in despair and then disappears.

After holding each other in contempt for 25 years, Edgar does

eventually

arrive at a spiritual epiphany in the face of impending death. Alice,

meanwhile, is seen painfully, but ironically fulfilled by their sour

marriage and his dependence, a real-life situation that presumably

exceeds in dramatic scope and range any role this character played

when she was an actress. Just as the play leaves us gaping into an

abyss that yet offers a glimmer of hope and forgiveness, the

atmosphere

of designer Santo Loquasto’s dark, dank, and slightly listing set

appears to be clouded with lethal gases. Two stars. Maybe you should

have stayed home.

— Simon Saltzman

The Dance of Death, Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44

Street,

New York. $51 to $71. To January 13. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or

212-239-6200.


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