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Guns of August

Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren go at it in Strindberg's marital hatefest; LaBute's a brute with The Shape of Things.

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Anniversary party:
Mirren and McKellen in Dance of Death.  

In the spirit of fairness, I guess, one must do unto Strindberg as one did unto Ibsen. On the heels of last week's mangling of Hedda Gabler, we get a not dissimilarly debased Strindberg masterpiece, complete with two British stars and a prominent British director to add cachet to the deconstruction, plus the now customary young monolingual American playwright to provide what is called, rather grandly, an adaptation.

Dance of Death spans three days in the 25-year-old marriage of Captain Edgar (no last name), commander of a tiny island off the Swedish coast, and his wife, Alice, a onetime actress, who live in a tower, formerly a prison. The marriage was and is a battlefield. Edgar drinks heavily, is constantly broke, offends everyone, and brutalizes Alice. She lacerates him with stinging ironies (at which he is no piker, either), and does her best to sour his existence; they have no friends, their children are away on the mainland, although Edgar adores his daughter, whom each parent uses as a weapon against the other; the unpaid servants keep quitting, the couple's credit is shot, and the larder is empty.

Now along comes Kurt, Alice's cousin, back from years in America, to take over as the island's quarantine officer. Both Edgar and Alice woo him as an ally in their internecine skirmishing. Kurt introduced Edgar to Alice; Edgar, however, was instrumental in Kurt's ex-wife's snatching custody of their beloved children. Kurt's uneasy loyalties are divided as he becomes the sounding board in turn of one spouse and then the other. Dance music from a party given by the army medical officer -- to which the spouses were not invited -- drifts tauntingly into their ears; later, there is a storm, which this production overdoes like so much else.

As Edgar, Sir Ian McKellen, an epigone of the great knights who by now have mostly died out of the English theater, endeavors to maintain their tradition but gives a performance far too mannered, posturing, and languidly spoken, his words emerging slowly and stickily, like gum pulled from his mouth. The usually admirable Helen Mirren, as Alice, matches McKellen in attitudinizing demeanor and affected speech, and both -- no doubt on Sean Mathias's directorial prompting -- play as much as possible, and beyond, for belly laughs. We miss the full oppressive sense of a mutually destructive love-hate. David Strathairn, as Kurt, owning neither the speech melody nor the elaborate trickery of the wily Brits, is even more lost than the part calls for.

Santo Loquasto's two-level set has epic sweep, the costumes displaying his customary savvy; Natasha Katz's lighting can be aptly splashy or sparing. Richard Greenberg's adaptation comprises some cuts, a few cutenesses (e.g., "He gets so puffed up, there isn't room for the room"), an occasional clinker (e.g., "that's not the worst implication of the situation"), and not a few annoyingly anachronistic modernisms, such as the oft-repeated "bottom-feeders," which others have rendered as "trash" (Meyer), "scum" (Sprinchorn), or "rabble" (Carlson). Nevertheless, the play's gargoylishly grimacing grandeur cannot be wholly obliterated.

We live in a sad era that mistakes mean-spirited arrogance for intellectual daring, juvenile nastiness for independence of mind, the dung beetle for the artist. Neil LaBute, in his repellent movies and plays, has consistently exhibited not mature insight into the nature of evil but a prurient burrowing into gleefully accumulated muck.

One cannot deny his current offering, The Shape of Things, a certain smart-ass cleverness. LaBute knows that a vaguely conciliatory ending justifies for unthinking viewers all foregoing excess. If the butt of profuse, reveled-in viciousness shows some composure in the end, the indignities heaped on him or her are forgiven: One final percent of decency whitewashes 99 of antecedent beastliness.

The Shape of Things concerns four college students' psychosexual interaction. Adam, a part-time museum guard in a small college town (to subsidize his English-lit studies), tries to stop another student, Evelyn, from unduly approaching a statue with a can of spray paint. The young woman, whose speech and behavior reek of defiance bordering on dementia, disapproves of the puritanism that placed a plaster fig leaf over the genitals of a statue of God. Before long, she has seduced the youth into calling her for a date -- she spray-paints her phone number on the lining of his seemingly only jacket -- then accomplishes her aim of painting a red penis on the statue.

Soon Adam and Evelyn are lovers, and she is hatching a mysterious project for a master's degree in fine arts. Fulfilled, the pair can view with complacent amusement the forthcoming marriage of Adam's ex-roommate Philip to Adam's former classmate Jenny, the wedding to take place in a water tank that they, too, will be immersed in. In no time, however, Evelyn has made Adam completely over, including a totally gratuitous nose job, which he shamefacedly disguises as an accidentally broken nose.

She also manages to break up this long-standing friendship by indirectly bringing about a reawakening attraction between Adam and Jenny: a sudden kiss, and possibly a good deal more, about which the play remains ambiguous. Certain it is that the wedding is off, and that Evelyn's M.F.A. project is revealed as an unparalleled abomination at which the school does not demur in the least.

I can't give away more without stooping to LaButean lack of principle but can assure you that the victim's feeble rejoinder and a concluding palliative moment hardly put things to right. The author's gloating hostility extends even to the breaks for scene shifts, during which (as LaBute wrote, in timely fashion, in the Times) "eleven blistering tracks by the Smashing Pumpkins are played at a volume just shy of . . . a jet flying low over Manhattan." Under the author's direction, Paul Rudd, Frederick Weller, and especially Gretchen Mol perform commendably, but the gifted Rachel Weisz, as Evelyn, overacts brazenly. In London, Harold Pinter, Pumpkin-blasted, left before the curtain rose, thus doing, for once, the proper thing.

Doug Wright's Unwrap Your Candy begins with the cast onstage impersonating the audience. Their interior monologues are mildly amusing, as are, between the three constituent one-acters, the supposed thoughts of actual spotlighted audience members given in voice-over. Less amusing are the playlets themselves: about the auctioning of the precious violin of a prematurely dead prodigy; a louche would-be buyer shown around a house -- the site of a hideous, unsolved murder -- by a jittery female real-estate agent; a dialogue conducted by a pregnant mother with her unborn, increasingly sinister son. Good acting, production values, and the author's direction raise this a touch above mediocrity.

Dance of Death
The play by Strindberg, starring Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren.
The Shape of Things
By Neil LaBute; starring Paul Rudd, Gretchen Mol, Frederick Weller, and Rachel Weisz.
Unwrap Your Candy
By Doug Wright.


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